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Frustrations with iOS Workflow

I’ve heard a lot of great things about Workflow for iOS and decided to give it a try. Frankly, at this point, I’m frustrated with it. Here are my findings so far.

Workflow is both powerful and frustrating.
Workflow is both powerful and frustrating. Image credit : Timothy Reavis, with edits by me.

What Can I Use This For?

The biggest struggle for me has been answering the question, “What can I use this for?” The common answer to this is, “All kinds of great things!” But look at my question again and note the emphasis on the personal pronoun I. “What can I use this for?” I’m still not sure how this tool can automate the day-to-day things that I grapple with.

Looking through the gallery, I see all kinds of interesting workflows, such as:

  • Directions To Next Event
  • Uber to Next Event
  • Uber Home
  • Photo Grid
  • Edit Photo
  • Laundry Timer
  • Pizza Assistant

OK, all of the above are interesting, but here’s my problem:

  • I don’t need directions to the next event, because it’s either in my office building, or it’s a personal event that I already know how to find.
  • Uber has been in my home city for about a year and a half now, which I certainly appreciate, but I’ve never used it since I tend to walk or cycle everywhere.
  • I don’t edit photos. I simply don’t care enough about that.†
  • I don’t need help with setting a laundry or pizza timer, because I’m blessed with those timers already built into my brain.††

Now, all of the above sound like nitpicks about how particular workflows don’t fit into my life. And they are. But one of the big problems I have is that as I browse through pretty much the entire gallery, it’s unclear how almost any of the workflows could be useful to me.

I should note that I’m a huge advocate of automation; I’ve written over half a dozen blog posts about the value in scripting away your annoyances. Thus, I’m glad the authors of the above workflows made them, shared them, and use them. I’m sure they love Workflow.

Discoverability

The other big problem I have with Workflow is that it’s too hard to see everything I can do with it. I feel like I want to take my big, jumbled box of Legos, dump them all on the floor, spread them out, then stand up and look at all the different pieces I have to play with. As far as I know, there’s no equivalent to exhaustive API documents that I can browse.

Sometimes you just need to see what all you have to play with.
Sometimes you just need to see what all you have to play with. Image credit : Emily (full name unknown).

Sure, there’s the action list that comes up when you swipe from the left, but it stinks for browsability:

  1. It starts at the “Suggested” list, and you need to tap the “Actions” button to see the full list. But I always forget this and get confused because I don’t see actions I expect to be there.
  2. Once I tap the “Actions” button, I’m still not looking at the full list. I need to scroll all the way down, then tap “All” to get to the full list.
  3. When I can finally see the full list, there are tons of actions (which is great), but I’m working on my small phone screen. By the time I get to the bottom of browsing the list, I’ve forgotten most of the interesting things I saw higher up.

Why, oh why, can’t I have a full list that’s browsable in a real web browser?

There’s a pretty nice section of Reddit for Workflow, and Google searches often take me to the site, but the posts there are about specific needs, not higher-level reviews of what you can do. Still, it can be a useful reference site, and I appreciate that it is there.

Other Annoyances

I have a couple of other annoyances as well.

Debugging a workflow is pretty difficult, and it comes down to trial-and-error. I tried making a workflow to take the current contents of the clipboard, which will be a URL, and send that URL to Instapaper for filing. But I couldn’t get it to work, and I’ve no idea where it went wrong. Did I build it incorrectly? Do the Instapaper actions not support the feature? I can’t tell, and I don’t know what to do next except drop the idea.†††

It looks like many Workflow power users, like Federico Viticci, are getting way more out of it because of Python scripting via Pythonista. But I don’t know Python. If there were equivalents for Ruby, JavaScript, C, C++, C#, Java, Bash, or Zsh, I’d be set. And I know that with 10 years of Ruby experience, I should be able to piece together enough Python to do what I need to get done, but frankly, it’s another hurdle, and I just don’t feel like it right now.

I acknowledge that the frustrations above are personal to me, but Workflow is a tool for personal automation.

Summary of Frustrations

I think my frustration boils down to being able to see the power of Workflow, but not being able to figure out how to make it work for me yet. I can see all kinds of cool workflows for other people. I know that there are likely many things I could automate in my life, but I’m the fish that doesn’t see the water around me.

It’s like I need a fairy to observe me for a day and make recommendations. Then I could consult the big list of actions and generate some sweet workflows. But as described above, browsing the big list is easier said than done. And I obviously don’t have a magical fairy.

Optimism

So far, this post has been down on Workflow, and I feel justified in that I’m genuinely frustrated, I’m authoring this on December 24th, and I’m feeling Scrooge-like.

But I remain optimistic about Workflow. Why? Because my gut is telling me that this tool is like a snowball rolling down a snowy mountaintop. It starts out small and slow, but over time, grows and grows and grows. I can see the power and flexibility of Workflow, but I simply need more time with it.

I believe my Workflow usage will be like a snowball rolling downhill.
I believe my Workflow usage will be like a snowball rolling downhill. Image credit : Scott Harkness.

I’ve experienced the same thing with other power tools like TextExpander†††† and OS X automation. Over time, I’ll get more used to it and start identifying more things I can automate. I’ll get more inspiration from things I see in the gallery and on Reddit. I’m also optimistic that some of my above concerns will be addressed as future improvements are made.

Thus, I look forward to writing the positive and upbeat version of this post next December 24th. :)

Thanks

I’d like to make a quick shoutout of “Thank you!” to several sources:

† Ok. I lied. I do edit some photos–to rotate, crop, resize, and have Preview automatically update colors on whiteboard photos.

†† Laundry timer & the ability to suppress hiccups are the equivalent of my X-Men superpowers. I’m quite fortunate to have them!

††† I don’t really have a problem with trial-and-error debugging. In fact, I practice it all the time with test-driven development. But in the case of test-driven development, I can run the tests super-fast, whereas running workflows over and over is slow and frustrating.

†††† In fact, I’ve created about half a dozen TextExpander snippets while writing this post to help me with HTML. I don’t think I would have done that six months ago, but I’m much more comfortable with the tool now.