The Shortcuts app in iOS runs custom tasks that you create, either on demand or automatically, based on conditions that you specify. Each task– which could be a simple one-step thing, or a very complex multi-step thing– is called a “Shortcut,” and you create them, and run them, right on your iPhone or iPad. The possibilities are virtually endless, and you don’t have to be a programmer to do it.
Here are three Shortcuts that I use all the time:
- Announce out loud, and send a text message reminder to me, when it’s time to charge my iPhone or iPad.
- Read my schedule (from the Calendar app) out loud each morning at prescribed times.
- Create a perfectly formatted email confirming consulting appointments, using a step-by-step, fill-in-the-blank method.
These shortcuts do exactly what I want them to do, because I’m the one who created them. That’s the beauty of the Shortcuts app: it allows each person to customize his or her iPhone in a way that works for him. Or her! You can do it too. All you have to do is figure out what it is you want your iPhone or iPad to do.
I know, I know: the iPhone and iPad are already so amazing, what else could we possibly want? Well…
How about a Shortcut that launches the Kindle or Books app at a certain time each Saturday morning, plays relaxing ocean waves sounds at a prescribed volume, and then turns on Do Not Disturb for an hour so you can read without distractions? How about a Shortcut that figures out how long it’s going to take you to get home, and sends a text message with that info to your husband or wife automatically? How about a Shortcut that pops up a picture from a year ago, just for fun, and it’s different every time you run the shortcut? How about a Shortcut that makes text bigger, and another one that makes it normal-size again?
It’s all up to you. If you can imagine it, you can probably turn it into a Shortcut. Dreaming up the Shortcut is your responsibility. Teaching you to actually create it– that’s my job.
Shortcuts is an Apple app, and it’s free. You may need to download it. Here’s the link to get it from the App Store. You’ll also need an iPhone or iPad on iOS 12 or later. Check that by going to Settings, then General, then About.
Individual Shortcuts can be triggered in several ways:
- from within the Shortcuts app
- by tapping an icon on your iPhone’s Home screen
- automatically, based on the time of day (with the option to choose certain days)
- automatically, based on arriving somewhere, or leaving somewhere
- automatically, based on receiving an email or a text message from the right person with the right subject
- automatically, based on turning on Do Not Disturb
- automatically, based on opening an app
- automatically, based on the battery level in your device
One more thing: in addition to being triggerable in all those ways, Shortcuts can also be launched using Siri. For example, if I want to hear my schedule read out loud to me, on demand, I can just say “Hey Siri, read my schedule” and it does. Check it out:
Sounds good, yes? Yes. So let’s make a shortcut.
Note: Shortcuts sync via iCloud, so you can make a Shortcut on your iPad and use it on your iPhone, and vice-versa. The iPad, with its bigger screen, is a great place for making Shortcuts, so if you have a choice, do it on the iPad. We’ll do ours on the iPhone here but if given a choice, use the iPad.
Shortcuts are built from individual steps called Actions. Making a Shortcut amounts to stacking the desired Actions in the desired order, and choosing a way to trigger the sequence.
Let’s make a Shortcut that reminds you to charge your iPhone if the battery is below 50%. We want an audible reminder saying “Time to charge!” and a text message saying the same thing. The text message part is particularly handy, because if your iPhone is in another room you won’t hear the message, but you’ll still get a text message on your iPad and Mac to remind you.
First we’ll make the Shortcut that does the work. Then we’ll figure out how to trigger it automatically, when the iPhone’s battery is below 50%.
Launch the Shortcuts app, and then (depending on whether you’ve looked at Shortcuts before or not, and depending on which version of iOS you’re using) you’ll either see something like this:
Or like this:
Or like this:
If you see a screen like that, tap “All Shortcuts” to get to this screen:
Finally, you’re in the right place. You probably went there right away but I like to be complete.
So now let’s make the Shortcut.
If you see a button saying “Create Shortcut” tap it. If you don’t, tap the “+” at upper right (be sure, at the bottom of the screen, that you’re in the “My Shortcuts” section– not Automations or Gallery).
You’ll get a new, blank Shortcut, waiting for you to add some actions.
Tap the “Add Action” button. You’ll see this:
The area at the top shows categories of actions. Then, below that, Apple has suggestions for you, “Based on how you use your iPhone.” You’ll see Actions for people you call a lot, or called recently. You’ll see actions for showing the weather in the locations you’ve checked recently. You’ll see Actions for sending messages to people you text a lot, or texted recently. And so on. These can be very handy at times– in effect, they are “shortcuts” for creating Shortcuts!
But we want to do something else: we want our Shortcut to say out loud “Time to charge your iPhone.” And then we want to send a text message to ourselves, telling us it’s time to charge the iPhone.
The best way to get started is to use the search box at the top. Let’s try it: search for “say” (because we want our Shortcut to SAY “Time to charge your iPhone.”). You’ll get a couple of Action choices (shown below in the picture on the left), and if you tap the blue-circled “i” at the right of the “Speak Text” Action you’ll see the picture on the right, which explains the Speak Text Action. “Speaks the inputted text aloud” is exactly what we want to do, so add the Action to the Shortcut (either by tapping the Action itself, if you’re on the screen that looks like the picture on the left or by tapping the big blue button if you’re looking at the the picture on the right).
(Notice that we didn’t have to know that the Action is called “Speak Text.” We didn’t even use the word “Speak” in our search, but we got to the right place anyway. Shortcuts is pretty good this way.)
Your Shortcut is taking shape! Tap where it says “Text” and type what you want your iPhone to say when it needs charging. Then tap Done at bottom right.
After tapping the “Done” button you’ll come back to this screen, with a “Play” button at bottom right.
Tap the Play button and your iPhone will run through every step in this Shortcut– in this case, just the one step. Tap “Show More” and play around with the rate, pitch, and voice until it sounds just the way you want it.
Let’s tap “Next” at top right, and keep going. We’re making progress!
Here you can give your Shortcut a nice name, and if you tap the icon to the left of the name you can choose an icon as well. Here’s a before-and-after:
Tap the Done button and you’re… done! You’ll see all of your Shortcuts in a panel of buttons, with your new one at upper left. You might just see one Shortcut. This screenshot shows a bunch that I’ve made, on my iPhone.
You can tap your Shortcut and play it if you want to. But this isn’t really what we are after. We want the Shortcut to play automatically, when the battery level dips to 50%.
We want an Automation.
Creating an Automation based on a Shortcut
Creating an Automation based on a Shortcut is easy. Start by tapping the “Automation” button at the bottom of the Shortcuts screen. If you have any Automations you’ll see them here; tap the plus sign at top right to make a new one. If you don’t have any Automations yet, you won’t have to tap the plus– you’ll be taken to this screen automatically.
You want a “Personal” Automation. That means it will run on the device you’re creating the Automation on– in this case, your iPhone. If you have an iPad you can create, on your iPad, an Automation that triggers the same Shortcut (because remember, Shortcuts are synced through iCloud).
When you create a Personal Automation you’re asked for a “trigger.” What will set off this Automation? You get a lot of choices:
We’re going to choose “Battery” level (outlined in red here).
Note: the “Time of Day” trigger is also very useful– you can set up reminders that speak out loud various things at certain times on certain days. “Time to take your pill.” “Move the car, it’s street-sweeping day.” “Monday Night Football starts in ten minutes.” Etc.
You might think that the first setting– “Equals 50%– is the right one, but in that case our Automation will trigger on the way up as well as on the way down, and we don’t want that. So choose “Falls Below” and then any percentage that you like. Then tap “Next.”
Now it’s time to specify some action for the Automation. We want it to run the Shortcut we made, so tap “Add Action,” search for Shortcuts, and finally choose “Run Shortcut.”
Now it’s time to specify which Shortcut. Notice the area outlined in red in the above image. You need to tap where you see the word “Shortcut” in light blue on a grey field. Then choose your Shortcut, then tap Next.
There’s your Automation, showing what it’s going to do, and when. VERY IMPORTANT: turn OFF “Ask Before Running.” You don’t want to see a little pop-up on your iPhone asking if it can run your Automation every time the battery level falls below 50%. You just want it to run. You want real “automation” and if you turn off “Ask Before Running” that’s what you’ll get.
You may wonder why we didn’t simply create an Automation to begin with. We could have, that’s a good point… but remember, Shortcuts sync via iCloud to your other iOS devices, while Automations don’t, which means we can go to our iPad and set up the same Automation there, triggering the same iCloud-synced Shortcut… and if we improve our Shortcut on one device it will be improved on both. Automatically. That’s why we did it “the Shortcut way.” We wanted to save work down the line.
Improving the Shortcut
Our Shortcut (and Automation) will work as it is, but we were supposed to send ourselves a text message also, the idea being that your iPad might be in the other room and in need of charging, and you want to hear about it on your iPhone and Mac. With a text message in addition to the device speaking “Time to Charge” you are sure to notice.
So let’s add the text message part to our Shortcut. (We only have to fix the Shortcut itself– the Automation will trigger our modified Shortcut.)
Get back to your Shortcut by tapping “My Shortcuts” at the bottom left of the screen. Tap the three dots in the circle on your Shortcut, then the “+” to add a step, then tap in the search box at the top.
Search for “Messages,” tap it, and then address the message to yourself. Then tap Done at top right.
I suppose you could address this to someone else– maybe you want to tell someone else that your iPhone needs charging. More likely you’d do it the other way around: set up the Shortcut on your forgetful friend or relative’s iPhone, and get notified when he needs to plug it in.
You may be getting used to looking for “Show More” buttons, and that’s a good thing, because a lot of stuff is hidden behind them. In this case, what’s hidden is control over whether you need to see the Message before it’s sent. You don’t, so turn off “Show When Run.”
Tap the blue “Play” triangle at bottom right (or top right, if you’re on an iPad), and you can see the Message come in. From you to you.
And now you’re done! Except we can still make this better. You can probably imagine how: it’s nice to get the notification that it’s time to charge, but which device needs charging? Our Shortcut doesn’t say. But it will.
Customizing the Shortcut based on the Device
What we really want is for the shortcut to say out loud “Time to charge your iPhone” or “Time to charge your iPad” (this will be announced on the device that needs it) and a text message saying the same thing (and this will be received on all of your devices, so if you don’t hear the announcement the needy device made, you’ll have the text message).
Fortunately, luckily, happily, the Shortcuts app knows which device it’s running on. Let’s add that information now.
First, let’s edit the Shortcut as we’ve done previously, by tapping the circle with the three dots in the corner of your Shortcut. Then tap the “+” in the blue circle, then search for “Device” at the top, and then add the “Get Device Details” action. Your new step is shown at the bottom of your stack of Actions.
Tap where it says “Device Name” (outlined in red above) and you’ll see the different chunks of information that you can add to your Shortcut. I chose “Device Model” so why don’t you do that too (for now). If you’ve named your iPhone something fun (Settings/General/About) like “Mr. Boyceyman’s iPhone XS” and you want to hear that name read out loud, that’s fine– but for this example I’m using the Device Model.
If you leave things like this, you’re not going to get any value from the new step you added, because your “Get the Device Model” Action is at the end of the stack. Shortcuts run from top to bottom, so by the time your Shortcut knows about the Device Model, the spoken announcement and the text message announcement will already have happened.
We need to rearrange the stacking order.
In the pictures above, the left-hand picture shows “Get the Device Model” at the bottom of the Actions stack. In the middle picture, I’ve moved it up, above the Messages Action. Do that, and then tap the message you were sending– the words after the “Send” label. In my case that’s “Time to charge!” See the red arrow.
When you tap the message text the Action knows you want to edit it, so it shows the keyboard. Change the text to “Time to change your ” and then tap just above the keyboard where it shows “Device Model.” I’ve outlined in red where to tap.
This is one of the really neat features of Shortcuts: it sort of “knows” what you might want to do. If we had a more complicated Shortcut we could tap “Variables” but for the most amazing experience, tap the magic wand and see how Shortcuts tries to help you. In our case, it’s straightforward: we want the Device Name, so we went right to it.
In the picture to the right you can see that I’ve dragged the “Device Model” Action up even higher, so the “Speak” Action can make use of the Device Name also. Shortcuts has added little vertical lines (I circled them in green for you) showing how one Action step feeds into the next). We didn’t have the lines previously, because– until now– the Actions in our Shortcut were independent. Now, we’re feeding information from one step (getting the Device Model) into subsequent steps. Hence the lines.
You can run your Shortcut using the blue Play triangle and you’ll hear it speak out loud, and then you’ll get a text message. Really fun. Of course we’re not going to do that– we’re going to trigger it automatically, when the battery level falls below 50%.
So technically we are done.
Further Shortcuts Explorations
Our Shortcut is functional as is, and it will work all by itself to remind you to charge the battery in your iOS device. However, there’s always room for improvement. For example, you might want to set the volume to a certain level before your iPhone starts talking to you, and then set it back to what it was when the Shortcut’s done running. Or, you might only want to do the “Speak” Action during certain hours.
And remember: because our Automation is running a Shortcut, and because Shortcuts sync using iCloud, if you’ve set up this “Time to Charge” Automation on your iPhone and your iPad, improving the Shortcut that the Automation is triggering will improve things on all of your iOS devices. That’s why we did it the way we did it– you have one big common pool of Shortcuts, synced with iCloud, and you then can choose to make Automations using those Shortcuts on a device by device basis.
You might also make a Shortcut that announces the current battery level, and make a Personal Automation that speaks the level and says “Charge!” , triggered when your iOS device is connected to power. ( I’ve done that myself and it’s both handy and fun. Plug in my iPhone and it says “I’m at 37 percent. Charge!” See below.)
Note that in this Shortcut, called “I’m Charging,” I do indeed note the current volume, then set the volume to what I want it to be, then– after the iPhone speaks its piece– I set the volume back. Just a little bit of housekeeping that makes things a little nicer.
Still need more ideas? How about a Shortcut that makes the text bigger when you open the Mail app? How about an Automation to change the face on your Apple Watch– maybe you want something with big numbers first thing in the morning, before you put on your glasses– on a schedule you define?
You’ll think of something! And when you do, you’ll know how to create your Shortcut, and you’ll save time and effort over and over once you’ve done it.
You can learn a lot more about Shortcuts by visiting these websites:
- Official Shortcuts User Guide, by Apple
- Siri Shortcuts, apps, and technology tips, by Matthew Cassinelli
- The Shortcuts App, by Federico Vitticci
And of course you can ask me. Use the form to send me an email.Copyright 2008-2021 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.