In this insightful interview, we delve into the world of Apple shortcuts with a seasoned developer who has been a driving force in the community: Mvan231. Throughout the conversation, we've spotlighted essential aspects of their journey, from the inception of popular shortcuts, the inspiration behind their creations, and to the challenges faced in the dynamic landscape of automation.
Additionally, we explore their collaboration experiences, the role of community platforms like RoutineHub, and their long-term vision for the field of shortcuts. Join us as we unravel the fascinating insights and valuable advice shared by this expert in the realm of Apple shortcuts.
Without further ado, we begin with the most important questions of this interview:
To kick things off, could you please introduce yourself and share insights into your work within the realm of Apple shortcuts?
I've kinda always been interested in technology as a kid growing up. You know, most kids are interested in video games and playing outside or whatever, and that was pretty much the same for me. But as I started getting into my teenage years, I started getting more interested in how that technology inside the video game or inside of whatever electronics that I had, how it worked, and I wanted to understand as much as I could about it.
I grew up around cars, so that kinda led me into what I do now, which is automotive engineering. So, I work in the automotive industry, and things are pretty fast-paced. There's a lot of things going on inside the car, but that goes along with software development as well. All of the different features inside of cars are driven by software. When I went to college, I studied automotive engineering and learned a bit about coding there. However, I learned more about it after I started working. As far as my development of shortcuts goes, it kinda stemmed off of that because it is another coding language.
As people know, it can be a bit more tricky to use for those accustomed to text-based coding or maybe people who haven't coded at all. So, it's interesting to me to see the different types of people that come to shortcuts and are trying to understand how they work or make something that they think should be possible. But they need some sort of guidance or instruction. Developing shortcuts is interesting—I usually refer to it as a hobby because of the time that it takes to do certain things. Some of them are very quick, and some of them take longer amounts of time, of course.
Can you share a few of your most popular shortcuts you have made?
I think my most popular is my Instagram Media Saver shortcut, and my first release was in 2020. I saw this need from a similar perspective as a lot of my shortcuts come from requests in the community. People were asking for something not available yet as a shortcut or it was and the other shortcuts had stopped working. Instagram Media Saver became popular because people wanted to download Instagram posts, reels, and stories. Other popular shortcuts I've made include Smart Send, a text message scheduling shortcut, and Facebook Video Downloader. However, Facebook Video Downloader have some issues due to changes Facebook made. (Since the time of this interview, the updates have been made and the shortcut works again).
What inspired you to start creating shortcuts and tools?
I really started getting interested in automation for a few different reasons. I liked the idea of being able to perform similar tasks on my phone in either a more repetitive way or to process things faster. One of the first things I used in shortcuts was back in iOS 12 when shortcuts first came about. I was doing some Waze map editing at the time, and there was a shortcut that worked to help find the Waze map editor link from the Waze app.
This allowed you to get it into a computer and use it on the map editing interface. It wasn't a very complicated shortcut, but it served as my introduction to the concept. After realizing what shortcuts could do, I began making some of my own. The interest really picked up pace in iOS 13 when automations were added, and there were a few more integrations into iOS itself.
When did you start creating Apple shortcuts? Can you specify the date or year?
I started in late 2018 or early 2019.
What was the development process behind your shortcuts? How did the idea come about, and what were the steps to bring it to success?
I started touching on it a little bit with the Instagram Media Saver shortcut we discussed a bit earlier. That one has been a long and still is a running development because things are ever-changing with social media, and retrieving media from their website is a bit tricky due to these changes. There have been instances where I've had to push updates as a result. In terms of ideas, many people requested different features, such as copying post captions to the clipboard, storing post captions in a file in iCloud Drive, or downloading a user's profile picture.
Many of these ideas came as requests, while some I implemented on my own, like a file selection for posts with multiple types of media. The same adaptability is required for the Facebook video downloader, considering the various approaches and potential changes on the website from which data is being retrieved. It can be a bit complicated and frustrating when something that works suddenly breaks due to website alterations.
What skills and knowledge are essential to developing effective shortcuts on Apple's shortcuts?
I think it really depends on what the user or creator is trying to do. Having an understanding of how an if-else or if-otherwise statement works, and an idea of how a repeat loop functions to iterate through something, can be very helpful. But it all really depends on what the user or creator is trying to do. Some tasks can be as simple as turning on a light through a HomeKit integration and then proceeding to play someone's favorite song or playlist on their HomePod. For such scenarios, they may only need to use 1 or 2, or maybe 4 or 5 actions.
Having an understanding of how an if-else or if-otherwise statement works, and an idea of how a repeat loop functions to iterate through something, can be very helpful.
On the other hand, there are other types of shortcut creators who aim to build something that's 400 or 500 actions long, essentially building an app instead of downloading one from the App Store. There are a couple of different use cases depending on what the user is trying to create, but some of the basic elements like if statements and repeat loops are probably the big ones, I would say.
What kind of feedback have you received from your shortcut users, and how has it influenced updates or improvements? Can you list a few popular places you look for feedback?
Yeah, this is an interesting one. Over the years, I've received a lot of feedback about my different shortcuts, especially when things break. As I mentioned, if something changes, there's a need for an update, and people usually notify me before I find out on my own. I get notifications from the places where I'm most active. The most popular ones are on RoutineHub, where somebody leaves feedback about an issue or suggests improvements. Another significant source is Discord, either from the RoutineHub Discord or the r/shortcuts Discord. Also, on the r/shortcuts subreddit, I often find people asking questions on my old posts or creating new ones related to the shortcuts I've worked on. Occasionally, I used to get inquiries on Twitter or X, but since I deleted my account there, people now reach out to me on Mastodon.
In light of iOS updates, are you planning adjustments to ensure your shortcuts continue to function properly?
Yes, I use updaters to notify users of new versions. However, ensuring compatibility with the latest iOS version may pose challenges for users with older devices.
This is about where the new user can find information related to shortcuts? In the process of developing shortcuts, are there any tips or lessons you want to share with other developers who are interested in creating useful shortcuts?
Yeah. So one of the interesting things about shortcuts is there are many undocumented methods to accomplish tasks. When I say undocumented, I mean not documented by Apple. It might be documented by someone like myself or another shortcut developer who has shared their findings on the r/shortcut subreddit or maybe on their personal blog. They document methods that are either more efficient or offer a unique approach compared to what was possible before or something newly discovered.
So, I recommend people always keep an open mind and give new things a shot. It's not uncommon to start building a shortcut and encounter unexpected failures or results. However, help is always available, maybe not instantly though. Asking and reaching out to someone who may have worked on something similar before is a useful thing to do. There might be an alternative approach to achieving the end goal compared to the method they're currently attempting.
Sometimes when seeking help, people focus on the specific issue they're facing. However, I've found that it's often better if the person explains what they're trying to do from the beginning to the end. This way, if there's a better approach, it can be suggested by whoever is providing assistance. Sometimes, it's a group of people collaborating to help.
What tools do you usually use to develop a shortcut?
Additionally, I also use Google Chrome or Firefox to examine network traffic on a particular website. This is mainly when I'm trying to determine if there's an API being used or if I need to understand how an API call should be made for a specific service. This is because API documentation is sometimes incomplete or challenging to comprehend.
Do you have any long-term vision for the field of shortcuts?
I don't see anything changing drastically in the long term. I do have some wishes about what I would like to see in shortcuts, such as further integrations with health data and the ability to expand some of the automation triggers, and that's probably about it.
I think shortcuts has come a long way since its introduction, especially since the workflow days before shortcuts even existed. However, I don't foresee significant changes, at least in the near future. I'm excited to see some of the app integrations that different developers are doing to create shortcuts for their apps, and I hope that more developers utilize this because it's helpful for everyone. It also makes things easier for users when they want to request a feature, like playing a certain song on Spotify or building a playlist.
However, it can be challenging when there's no direct action to perform these tasks within the app, as users then have to work with the service's API or may find that there's no way to do it. This can be frustrating for users who just want to perform a specific task in a particular app. I hope more app developers will embrace the idea of creating app shortcuts for common tasks within their apps.
What information channels do you use to share updates and information with the Apple shortcuts community?
Primarily, I would say, Discord is the just the main place where I communicate with communities, and that is the shortcuts user group Discord server, which is the one that Matthew Casanelli start it up off of his main group that he had on, Twitter before, and, also, ther/shortcuts, Discord server, and the RoutineHub Discord server as well.
Those are all great places that I like to interact with people, but also on the r/shortcut subreddit as well. I've been interacting with some people here and there on Mastodon as well, but it's a little bit slower paced there,because the user base is a little bit more narrow.
I noticed you had a podcast project. Do you plan to continue with this project?
I'd like to continue the podcast project. I really had a fun time doing the podcast before. It was interesting doing some of the audio editing and the recording and just talking about shortcuts in general. But one of the difficulties for me with continuing the podcast was having the time to put the content together and record. The post-processing is always a lot more work than what I ever realized.
When I listen to any given podcast, I never realize how much extra work goes into editing afterwards to cut out little noises here and there or to maybe cut out certain silence portions of the discussion. But it can be a lot of work, and then there are other discussions that can go smoothly. I would like to kick it back into gear and start releasing episodes. I've been talking about doing that for a while but haven't had a chance to really get back at it.
Have you had opportunities to collaborate with other developers in the RoutineHub community on similar projects?
Yes, collaborations have occurred, such as with the "Just Another YouTube Downloader" shortcut. Collaborating on a shortcut can be tricky due to code sharing limitations, but using shared notes and effective communication helps.
How do you see the role of the RoutineHub community in creating and improving shortcuts?
The community and the site are excellent for sharing work and learning. New users can explore, find inspiration, and learn from existing shortcuts. It provides a supportive environment for users to enhance their skills and contribute to the community.
What improvements would you like to see on the RoutineHub community site?
Improved site moderation would be beneficial. There are instances of irrelevant or potentially malicious uploads that need better reporting options. Features like the ability to report specific comments on a shortcut page would also enhance user experience.
What advice would you give to new users who want to get the most out of the shortcuts you have developed?
Ensure you read and understand the instructions provided. I try to make them clear with screenshots, but if something is unclear, feel free to reach out for clarification.
To finish, what advice would you give to new developers in the RoutineHub community?
I would say to keep trying different methods, you might wanna build in shortcuts, and there's no way of telling which way is the best way or the fastest way without trying different methods. So continuing to try and improve things and develop different ways of doing things is definitely helpful, not only for a given developer, but for the rest of the community as well.
Once they figure something out and share it with the rest of the community, it can help other people develop their own shortcuts as well.