Messin’ with Workflow

Workflow on iPad

Among other things, the holidays afford time for indulgences masquerading as productivity. For instance, I spent an inordinate amount of time playing around with Workflow, the surprisingly powerful automation app for iOS. It’s an elegant, easy to learn scripting platform that makes iOS’s famously buttoned-up ecosystem of native apps feel sufficiently pliable to just about any whim that might occur to you.

A few examples: I built a workflow (the app’s confusingly self-referential terminology for a script) to move screenshots from my iPad to Dropbox and delete them from my camera roll; one to scan my calendar for events on a specific day and share my availability with coworkers; and another to generate PDFs of just about anything and store them in a designated folder. All of these can be triggered with just a tap or two from a Workflow widget in my device’s Notifications Center.

I found Workflow to be particularly effective for blogging from my iPad. This is something I do regularly because I often travel only with a tablet. Before Workflow it required jumping through more hoops than doing the same task on my desktop or laptop. So I created workflows to resize the canvas of images I post (like the one above) and another to upload it to my WordPress install while also saving a backup to Dropbox, again all with just a couple of taps.

Workflow is an incredibly well-considered scripting platform that’s still somewhat raw.Twitter

It’s true that none of my time-saving scripts amount to mind-bending breakthroughs in computing, but that doesn’t change the fact that Workflow can remove considerable friction from productivity routines on iOS. One notable added bonus is that after building the kind of complex and powerful workflows that you really need the larger screen real estate of an iPad to properly piece together and test, that work can be synced instantly to your iPhone, giving you that same complexity and power in the palm of your hand, on the go.

To be honest, I spent more time constructing these scripts than I’ll probably save in practice, at least measured in real minutes. But these were my first projects in Workflow so they were useful for learning how to use the app. More to the point, it was fun to do, too; Workflow makes experimentation (mostly) easy and straightforward, a huge selling point for non-programmers like myself.

For all its power though, Workflow is actually a curious mix of the polished and the raw. Its creators have delivered an incredibly well-considered scripting platform in terms of under-the-hood thinking and simplifying assumptions that make it a real pleasure to use. On the other hand, the app leaves you somewhat on your own as you explore it. There’s no undo, so an errant swipe could change parameters in your work before you know it, and you have to be conscientious about saving backup copies as your workflows evolve.

The app is also conspicuously missing robust, canonical documentation of its many concepts and capabilities. There are tips built into the interface but they’re rudimentary, and if you need more depth the developer directs you to a Subreddit. (You can also refer to a series of excellent episodes of Federico Viticci and Fraser Speirs’s Canvas podcast, which are an excellent introduction to Workflow.) While you don’t need to have an engineering background to learn Workflow, those with even a passing grasp of how scripting works, along with a willingness to Google for answers when you’re stuck, will have a much easier time than true novices.

Ultimately t’s probably most accurate to say that Workflow is just a very young scripting environment, one that is off to a great start but has much growing to do. All other things being equal, I’d much rather have it in its current, somewhat threadbare state when it’s a bit of a challenge but still tremendously useful than to be without it. It’s already an indispensable tool if you’re interested in going iPad-first or even iPad-only.