iPad Hacks: Migrating Evernote Data on iOS

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A few days back I posted a fairly detailed introduction to DEVONthink to Go for iOS. To follow that up, I promised some options for iOS users wanting to leave Evernote, and bring their data with them. Whether you want to go all in with DEVONthink, or you have in mind another app, the question is how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app.

On macOS, you have a number of options. The most simple and clean being a direct transfer within DEVONthink Pro itself. Managing this process without a Mac, on the other hand, requires more creative thinking. What follows are some options for iOS only users wanting to export all Evernote data. DEVONthink is the endpoint in this case, but the process can easily be adapted for apps like Notebooks, Bear, or even Apple Notes.

Some of the Gotchas

I’ll admit I’m fortunate I could use a Mac to do this, but it’s not quite as difficult on iOS as it once was. Some advice out there will have you believe otherwise, but you can migrate your data without having to do it one note at a time. It is worth considering these potential stumbling blocks before you do it. I would pay special attention to the data you consider most important in Evernote, either tag it as such, or place it in a specific notebook. Reading on, you might also want to delimit different data types, such as text, PDFs, and images.

The arrival of drag and drop had me wondering if we could simply drag the notes across to another app. I will come back to this below. You can bring drag and drop come into play, it just won’t solve the problem on its own. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as dragging all your notes from one place to another. If you try to transfer directly from Evernote, these are some of the frustrations you will encounter:

  • Notes in Evernote are stored in a proprietary rich text format. If you try to drag notes, some apps like Apple Notes, will refuse the transfer when you try to drop them. Others, like DEVONthink, will allow you to drop the note, but will strip all the formatting. That might be fine for text only notes, but everything else is lost. The worst part is losing all your links.
  • If you try dragging a note with an attachment, you will get the title and nothing else.
  • If you can open the note and drag the attachment itself, it will come across no problem. Which is fine if you only want to drag a couple of items. I have hundreds of PDF attachments in Evernote.
  • When drag and drop doesn’t work, you might think you could use the share sheet. You’d be right, if you want to choose between exporting web links for notes, or sending each individual note via email in Apple Mail.
  • Evernote is mired to a functionality issue that, until recently, has bloodied the foreheads of iOS users. It doesn’t do multiple files.
how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
If you're dragging PDFs out of Evernote, make sure you drag the attachment itself, or you will end up with a plain text note with only the title

Yep, it’s painful. Which is why so many people hit these walls and keep the status quo. 1 Thankfully, we now have tools that can help overcome these problems. If you really want to migrate your Evernote data to another iOS app, you can.

Using Workflow

The Workflow route is straightforward enough. As alluded to above, depending on how precious you are about the data, it might require some preparation in Evernote. Whether you want to do this could come down to the number of notes you have, but discriminating by notebook or tag can help get better results. Tedious work on iOS, I know. You can always go nuts, and deal with the consequences later, whatever your destination. I’ll confess, that’s how I roll.

I have played around with this for long enough to feel confident advising a uniform approach to importing notes, whether you choose to bring them across as text, or PDFs. Technically Workflow, and DEVONthink can both handle the rich media that Evernote stores. Setting up a complex workflow with IF conditionals is possible, but you can end up with a lot of wacky results in amongst the ones that transfer properly. Likewise, encoding the rich text itself via URL isn’t as consistent I’d like.

Bear in mind, you’re not deleting the data in Evernote through this process. Even if you proceed after testing, and you’re still not happy with the results, you can try the other method below. 2 The best results I get via Workflow are from encoding all the data as a PDFs. That won’t suit everyone.

Alternatively, you can do the same thing using Markdown, but any PDFs in Evernote won’t be encoded, they’ll come across blank. This is where that preparation comes in. If you have separated data types by tag, or notebook, you can run the different workflows individually. You can apply the same logic for images if you wish, although I haven’t set that up myself as I never stored any in Evernote.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
Separating the workflows by data type gets much better results

No doubt somebody is reading this thinking the workflows don’t need to be separated. That’s true, or at least it should be. As I mentioned earlier, my efforts at combining them turned out some garbage. If you’ve had more success, I would love to hear about it. Read on, and you will see the workflows can be combined more easily when taking a different route.

Disclaimers

The workflow will make you specify the number of notes you want to export/import. This is a limitation of the API, you have to specify a number. It’s a good idea to test this anyway, so set the number low to start with.

These workflows also leave the ‘title’ parameter blank, as there seems to be a bug in one of the apps along the chain that interrupts the URL encoding — or decoding. 3 I will update the workflows when I’m certain the bug is squashed, but read on as there are better options below.

You can adapt this workflow for you own needs, of course. If you want to know more about the DEVONthink URL scheme, the documentation is included with the app. Or you can get it here

Evernote to DEVONthink Workflows

Instructions, or TL;DR

Optional: Organise your Evernote data by data types using tags, or notebooks for Text and PDF 4. This is a giant pain, so before you go ahead and do it, make sure you have checked out the alternatives below. Either way, the process is as follows:

  • Download the Workflows above
  • If you don’t want to distinguish the data types, just run the PDF workflow for everything to come across as PDFs.
  • If you have separated the data types, run each workflow separately.

Using a Cloud Service with Workflow

This route adds more complexity, but it gives you more flexibility as a result. There are some concessions with the form the data is transferred in, but that is true of all these methods. I have played around with a few different services, the main prerequisite being ease of use on iOS. A lot of web apps have awkward UI for touch control.

Google cloud transfer for Evernote, and you will most likely find results dominated by MultCloud. I can’t recommend it for this job, to start it’s a poster candidate for shitty web UI for a touch interface. But, the real reason is MultCloud transfers without conversion, so you end up with a bunch of ENML documents. 5 Outside Evernote they’re all but useless. At best, MultCloud is a backup option.

CloudHQ is also awful to look at, but it has much more granular options for the transfer, and the real kicker, it will actually work. You can use a free account with CloudHQ to export your notes in PDF, plain-text format, or both. It will export everything to Dropbox, or your pick of service. If anyone is wondering how this fits with my thoughts on cloud storage, data in Evernote is already insecure. This is about changing your ways.

Once you have everything transferred, you will do the same thing as above. However, there is some good news. The DropBox API will expose a lot more information to workflow from the initial call, so it is easier to set conditions in the workflow to combine the actions. In other words, if you transfer the data to a storage service first, you can run a single workflow from there.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app

Dropbox to DEVONthink Workflow

This workflow is setup to import PDFs, and Plain text files. Migrate your data from Evernote to Dropbox via CloudHQ

Drag and Drop for Best Results

Drag and has made a lot of tasks on iOS much easier than ever before, with transferring data among them. With the help of the files, you can forget workflow altogether, and use drag and drop to manage the last part of the migration. The first step is the same as above, prepare and transfer your data from Evernote to cloud storage.

You can do this with with Dropbox, or Box. I haven’t tested it with any other cloud services, so your mileage may vary elsewhere. If you’re using free plans, it’s worth knowing the box free plan gives your 10gb of storage – the maximum file size is 250mb, but that won’t be a problem here, in fact unless you are storing large video files it is unlikely to be a problem ever. 6

The key is how you set the apps up. You probably know by now that integration with the Files app can be hit and miss. This process exemplifies the difference between Files, and the more traditional Finder on macOS. You might expect you can open up Files and drag documents from one service to another, like you would between folders on macOS, but if that works it all it is very limited.

For example, if you try to drag multiple files after selected them via the select function, you won’t be able to drop them anywhere. However, if you collect the files together by taping on them one at a time, then the files will stack together and you can drop them no problem. Then there is the matter of how folders must be setup to accept dragged items; the inbound folder accepting the files has to be added to the favourites section of the Files sidebar, to make it available as a drop destination. When you do get it to work with the files app exclusively, other strange things can happen. Like the metadata being out of whack.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
If you want to drag and drop within the files app itself, the destination folder must be added to favourites

The point I’m making is the process is more complicated than it seems. Illustrative of how much room for improvement remains in the brave new world of iOS Files. But, this is only true if you are trying to manage the entire process in the Files app itself. The story is completely different if you you start in the Files app, and drop your notes in the third-party app itself.

how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
The best, and easiest option is to select all the required files and drag them out of Files, and into the third-party app

Instructions:

  • You can skip organising your Evernote data type for this method, it will make no difference
  • Use CloudHQ  to transfer data to Dropbox
  • Open up the files app. Select the notes your want to transfer, and dry them into the new app.
how migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
The file provider will begin the transfer even if you are only really dragging metadata

Other Apps as a Destination

Using DEVONthink as a destination, the results have been gapped doing things this way. The beauty of this method, however, is any app that accepts compatible data — and supports drag and drop — can be setup to receive the notes. She of the more popular note-taking apps on iOS will make the process even easier by providing an import function. Both GoodNotes, and Notability will let you import directly from cloud storage, without any further rigmarole. You can use drag and drop with both apps too, but you don’t need to.

how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app
GoodNotes has excellent drag and drop support, but you don't necessarily need to use it. Both GoodNotes and Notability have import functions built in.

If you want to migrate data from Evernote to alternate notes apps, all you need to do is transfer it via the CloudHQ method above, then import the notes via the import function of the app in question. If the app is only using iCloud, you should still be able to use the Files app to mitigate that problem. If not, I have setup a quick and dirty workflow to transfer from Dropbox to iCloud, you can get it here 7

To-Do

Evernote’s API offers potential for users migrating data. Like most folks, I’m a little light on time to do this sort of thing right now. I’m not making any promises, but I’m half thinking I will play around with both Workflow, and Pythonista over the holidays to see what can be done. 8 Anyone familiar with this site will also know how much I admire the Notebook app. It also has an excellent custom URL scheme. I intend to use it for setting up more workflows.

Even though I have already transferred the bejesus out of data from Evernote, I will still mess around with these workflows some more. If you’re interested in how any of this this progresses, signup to the mailing list. Or, I will post it here at a later date.

  1. I should point out here that my leaving Evernote had nothing to do with the price of a subscription.
  2. I do think it gets better results
  3. It's most likely DEVONthink, the developers assure me it's not happening in the next build
  4. You can do images too, but you will have to adapt a Workflow for that
  5. Evernote markup language
  6. This is something that appears to confuse a lot of people. Box don’t do themselves any favours by wording it strangely either. The site says 250mb maximum upload. What it means is file size, not transfer limit.
  7. If you just want to archive your Evernote data in iCloud, this will work for that too.
  8. There are some existing scripts, but Evernote has moved to a new API. I haven’t yet found any in current working condition. Then again, I haven’t looked too closely yet.

Advanced Data Management for iOS with DEVONthink

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This has been a while coming. 1 Having mentioned this app a number of times, I haven’t yet offered a detailed account — something it thoroughly deserves. Those mentions have prompted a reasonable question, is it worth buying DEVONthink to Go for iOS if you don’t have a Mac? The short answer is yes. Qualified by what you want to do with it, but you won’t be short on possibilities. Whether you’re looking for a private Evernote alternative, want to improve your digital file management, better organise research material, or you want secure storage and advanced search capabilities for your data. There is much that DEVONthink can do on iOS. Of course, that leads us to a much longer answer — and, believe it or not, this is a mere introduction.

On Being Unique

Most of the apps we use on iOS can be distinguished by category, or specific task. They’re often things we need, but as long as you have something in that category, capable of a specific job, the app itself comes down to personal preference. It’s true we’re not always spoilt for choice — and I’ll happily point out that some things are better than others. Nonetheless, if it’s a PDF reader, notes app, text editor, or email client, they’re all interchangeable to some degree. Whether you prefer GoodNotes to Notability, or PDF Expert to PDFpen, either will do the job. Until something better comes along, that is. 2

There is a different kind of app where interchangeability no longer applies. Or at least, where it’s not quite so simple. They’re few and far between, but there are some obvious examples. Take Drafts for iOS, sure it’s a text editor — and there are plenty of those — yet, that seemingly simple function belies a unique automation engine for text based productivity. Having popularised the x-callback-url system on iOS, Drafts is as much an inception as it is an app. 3 By all accounts, inter-app automation via URL was only half a hack until x-callback allowed apps to return the call — so to speak.

The likes of 1Writer and Editorial can be loosely grouped with drafts. Like Drafts, 1Writer uses javascript automation, but more to bridge the gap from text editor to word processor. While Editorial is a high-spec graphical automation tool for manipulating text with Python. Then there is Pythonista. I can’t think of anything else like it. Not really. There are other code editors, but Pythonista can be invoked as an extension to perform scripted automation. Something that seemed at one time like it would never arrive on iOS. How Pythonista ever sneaked past moderation remains a mystery. Thankfully it did, and it remains a fixture of advanced automation on the iPad.

Perhaps the most obvious example is Workflow. Apple swallowed it whole to make an entire subset of fan-geeks exhale a coordinated, and confused sigh. What will happen? The optimists are betting on some form of native integration with iOS, while the half-empty crowd are clasping their hands and pursing their lips for a round of tutting on podcasts. Jokes aside, if Apple ever took Workflow offline, they wouldn’t so much be shooting themselves in the foot as they would be cleaving the entire leg off the idea of an iPad as a serious working device. These are all unique, and important apps.

Before I digress any further, I’m trying to provide some context for DEVONthink to Go. 4 Both to place it in good company, and to make the case for how unique it is. To view it as nothing more than a companion app for the macOS versions of DEVONthink would be a mistake. Sure, it can be used like that. As far as companions go, it’s a particularly powerful one. The iOS version, however, can stand on its own. It is something of a category in itself, given its crossover functionality. This is quite an achievement, especially as the app was completely re-written for version 2.0. 5

When used to its potential, DEVONthink can be just as important as the apps mentioned above on iOS. It's easily as unique. But like anything, it comes down to how you intend to use it. Implementation is key. Getting the most from any of the DEVONthink apps means putting them at the centre of your workflow for capturing, storing, and retrieving data. DEVONthink to Go is no different.

All in the Tags

Amid the changes in iOS 11 were significant improvements for managing files. There is no doubt the Files app — even in these early stages — is a welcome and useful development. The caveat is recognising where some of Apple’s long held resistance to such an app came from. For example, organising files and folders — stacking iCloud with a folder hierarchy — is now easier than ever. Yet, to do so embraces an outdated method of organising data. Where research and study is concerned, how one archives important material is a serious consideration. This is not to say you shouldn’t use folders, but if you’re handling a lot of data, it can get very messy.

This is where tags come in. A shallow file structure with carefully chosen tags adds depth to your metadata, giving you more surface area for search queries. Tagging gives you more hooks, but less visual confusion. Not only does the Files app allow more fine control for folders, users now have immediate access to Apple’s native tagging system. Whether carried over from macOS, or implemented locally on an iOS device, tagging can be utilised for search queries and data retrieval.

Apple’s implementation of tagging across platforms has been casual at best. It’s kind to say it remains a work in progress. However, if only a gentle nod, it is still an acknowledgement of the utility in tagging for organising data. Ironically, if you find tagging useful and want to get more out of it, then you will need to go beyond the files app.

This is just one area that DEVONthink shines. Tagging is part of the DEVONthink DNA. Some aspects of native iOS tagging remain mysterious, but DEVONthink is smart enough to import the metadata applied in the Files app. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet work the other way around.

DEVONthink's tagging is much more comprehensive than the native Apple offering

 

A Secure Central Repository

While organising a folder hierarchy in iCloud Drive is much easier with Files, ironically that app makes it less necessary to do so. I tend to work in the DEVONthink app directly, but DEVONthink data in Files is incredibly useful, and not just for quick access.

Data stored in DEVONthink can be accessed directly through the Files app

This is something I mentioned in my post on cloud storage. Regardless of the storage provider, by storing data in DEVONthink you can couple the convenience of the Files app with strong client-side encryption. The previous post talks about syncing with macOS, but the same applies if you are only using iOS. The data is encrypted and decrypted on your device, making it secure during transfer, and at rest in the cloud. From that post,

If you are already a user on macOS, adding DEVONthink to Go to your workflow is straightforward. The database itself is encrypted, and the app supports pretty much any file type you can throw at it. Devon Technologies are one of the oldest Apple software developers around. So it is no surprise to see them embracing the new Files App. This means DEVONthink to go can be used as a file provider. So you can store your files safely, and edit them in place using third-party apps. In my opinion, this is a pretty sound option. In many cases, it could be enough. If it is, managing files through DEVONthink will avoid the need for a dropbox alternative.

DEVONthink is also very smart about storage, giving you the option to keep metadata locally, and download files on demand. Or if you prefer, you can store everything locally. As the engine is built to sync databases individually, there is even a little storage hack — if you are so inclined.

Each database can synced using the same, or different cloud services. That means you can use the free tier of different services to save on the cost of storage. Admittedly the supported services are still limited, but if you are just starting they will be more than adequate. Perhaps more to the point, it also means you can sync multiple copies of databases, adding redundancy to your backups. This includes backing everything up to iCloud.6

Backing up data on iOS requires users to think differently, especially if you are not using a Mac or a PC as the mother ship. DEVONthink is one of few apps that can give you extra peace of mind.

Advanced Search

All but the most perfunctory writing requires research. Couple that to the focused nature of an iPad workflow, and you have a use case for a purpose built repository. Writers using Scrivener have tools built in to that app, but while they might be enough for some writers, that research is — in practical terms — silo’ed by project. I like to have that material available more generally, whether during, or after a project is complete. 7 Spotlight is a great tool for search, DEVONthink is better.

DEVONthink is built for search. A consistent naming convention, and tags can only be helpful to maintaining a research database. DEVONthink comes preloaded with tools that will either compliment that process, or help you retrieve data regardless. With Boolean search operators, and parentheses, refining search terms will return items with more specificity. You will find more, and lose less.

Search queries can be constructed using the boolean operators AND, OR, NOT, and the truly helpful NEAR. For example, I might remember that I saved an article that included the phrase ‘Why Aristotle was never quite as awesome as Plato’. I can search for the document with: NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10), and DEVONthink will return items that have the keywords Aristotle and Plato within 10 words of each other. Of course, you can go much further by changing search queries together.

With boolean search operators, users can construct sophisticated search queries

My first example returns a lot of results, but let’s say I remember it was an informal source. I could construct a search query to eliminate results that have a keyword to indicate it comes from an academic journal. I would use something like NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10) NOT Journal. I could use a DOI number, or Abstract as elements common to those kinds of results.

Even if by trial and error, the ability to construct granular search queries makes DEVONthink to Go an invaluable tool. If you are a user of DEVONthink Pro on macOS, you should know the query syntax is a little different. It can be frustrating if you don’t know that, but the simplified version for iOS makes sense. While accurate searches are crucial, there is a swiftness involved with mobile input. The developers are on record as saying an alternative syntax is on the roadmap, to make the apps more consistent. The existing syntax would remain, which is a good thing to my mind. I have never had so much success at finding what I need among my haphazard collections.

PDF Management

I have consistently recommended PDF Expert for a stand-alone PDF reader on iOS. Until recently, together with the free Documents app from Readdle, and Papers 3 for iOS, that was the extent of my PDF workflow. It is not so clear cut anymore. For one thing, the makers of the PDF framework PSPDFkit released their free PDF Viewer app, making powerful PDF management available to users for nothing. But there are other reasons, one of them is DEVONthink to Go.

DEVONthink to Go includes a comprehensive PDF editor, with excellent Apple Pencil support

 

Some advice I give out freely but struggle to keep is, try to minimise the apps you use for essentially the same task. Managing PDFs for your research can get out of hand if you don’t have a clear idea of how you organise them. There is no problem with using a third-party PDF app with DEVONthink to Go.The support for editing files in place means you can edit files in other apps, without having to copy them to another app. However, DEVONthink’s built in PDF editor is more than capable. It gets out of your way, includes excellent Apple Pencil support, and has all the requisite annotations tools. You can edit the documents themselves, even add pages if necessary. Sometimes you might need to do more with annotations, but that is about the extent of the limitations.

These are considerations to make if you are assessing the in-app purchase. Especially if you are setting your iPad up for the first time, it could make a lot of sense to go all in and keep your document editing and annotations in one place.

Note Taking

The actual in-app note-taking features are quite sparse, but functionality of the app makes up for that in other ways. I have been making a point of laying out a use case where DEVONthink is a central hub for storing data, but it can be a point of creation too.

DEVONthink to go supports rich text, plain text, and markdown, with the ability to capture, read, edit, or create within the app itself. The editor in the app itself is very basic, so I tend to use a third-party text editor. The ability to edit files in place means you can use whatever app you choose, as long as it supports file providers. In my experience to date, the app with the nicest integration is iA Writer, especially since the recent update. Another with reliable support is 1Writer.

Notes stored in DEVONthink can be created, and edited in third-party text editors like iA Writer

Editing in place means you are opening the file in your choice of editor, and the changes are reflected back in the database. Until recently, this wasn’t really possible. DEVONthink used a workaround it called ‘round trip’, which worked, but wasn’t ideal. Once the file is the database, the changes will be reflected whether you edit it in the third-party editor, or in DEVONthink itself. If you know anything about iOS system extensions, you will now that there are two types of actions in the share menu for files. One opens the file in another app, the other copies the file into the other apps storage. Edit in place means you are not making a copy.

There have have been reports of strange behaviour, although I have only experienced it a couple of times myself. It seems to happen more when using the share extension, rather than starting the edit in the text editor first, and using the files integration. It is also worth pointing out that all of this functionality is new, as are the frameworks in iOS that support it. There are a few bugs in the system, but nothing catastrophic.

This might appear to work back to front at first, but if you think of DEVONthink as the storage facility, it will sink in. Where it gets messy is if you try to edit the same file with multiple editors, you will end up with conflicts and error messages. My best advice is to be consistent.

1Writer is another excellent text editor that can be used with DEVONthink

Replacing EverNote

This is something that comes up a lot in relation to DEVONthink apps. Except for a couple of passing comments, there is conspicuous absence of Evernote coverage on this site. It’s not that I don’t think Evernote is useful. If anything were a gateway drug to digital productivity apps, Evernote is it. I was once a heavy user. The idea behind Evernote is to throw everything you ever come across at it, it can even be therapeutic for a digital pack rat who can’t let anything go. Clip it, and forget; or come back to if you will.

DEVONthink to Go has a powerful web clipper capable of replacing Evernote

If the defining Evernote feature is its clipper, that can be a problem, as there is nothing judicious about the process. Capturing information is ridiculously easy with Evernote. DEVONthink can operate on the same principle — if you wish — only completely private. The DEVONthink clipper might seem basic 8, but it is a powerful little extension. With the extensive automation feature on iOS, you can customise and extend its capabilities to suit your own needs.

Unlike Evernote documents are not stored with DEVONthink in a proprietary format, so your data doesn’t feel so captive. If you’re a macOS user getting your notes out of Evernote is not difficult. 9 Yet, the more material you store there, the more reason you have to be nervous about the portability of that data. This is a double edged sword for Evernote and some users. The more you get drawn in, the harder it is to leave, and yet if you have a lot of important data there you’ll start to think about what might happen to it.

I was concerned about securing the future of my own access to my data, but ultimately it was Evernote’s access to that data that provided the final push. What promoted me to jump was the increasingly creepy feeling I had about their privacy oscillations. Not long before all the hullabaloo about flip-flopping over their privacy policy , I was one of the users hit by a bug that deleted attachments from certain notes. I was among a group of users who received a year’s free premium subscription by way of apology. Ironically, the only thing I used Evernote for over the course of that year was to export my data.

Moving out

Truthfully, I hardly ever used Evernote to take notes. As I think many people do, I used it like a database. Moving that workflow to DEVONthink is very simple. Although, even if I still throw a lot at DEVONthink, I tend to do it with a little more foresight. That you can delineate types of data within a hierarchy that goes all the way to database level, means I don’t have the overwhelming sense that my research data is being polluted by gift ideas, and tutorials for obscure automations that I’ll probably never use. As for the data itself, I can still have the convenience of cloud storage, only now it’s encrypted and I can choose how, and what I want to synchronise.

These things are just as true for an iOS only workflow as they are for a full blown DEVONthink Office pro user archiving their email. There remains a problem, however. As I alluded to above, getting your data out of Evernote, and into DEVONthink on the Mac is a trivial matter. DEVONthink makes it very simple, with Evernote API integration. Without a desktop of sone form in the middle, however, the same is not true for iOS users. The pressure points for going iPad only are now much fewer than ever, but there remain a couple. I often mention citations, then there is this kind of data transfer.

There are workarounds for this. If you’re considering it, you’ll be happy to learn I have you covered. I was going to include the options, with different instructions and a couple of workflows I have built in this post, but I took a look at how long it is getting and broke it off into a seperate piece. It will go up not long after this.

Automation Meets Drag and Drop

Speaking of Workflow, an area of considerable value to an iOS only working life is automation. While the default iOS interaction model of one app at a time has been supplemented with multitasking features, the secondary, and even tertiary apps are almost exclusively invoked as part of a singular, focused task. 10 The benefit, whether intentional or not, is the iPad encourages a kind of focused work that more traditional computing interfaces do not. This is particular beneficial for academic work.

This is a curious strength, but as anyone who has done a lot of work on an iPad will tell you, it has its drawbacks. Thankfully, most if not all insurmountable problems have been made history by two significant developments to the platform. The first was the aforementioned Workflow app. That app might be somewhat indebted to the inception of x-callback — as mentioned above — but Workflow kicked the automation door off its hinges, and you get the sense something much more significant is coming from that app. 11 The second development happened this year: drag and drop.

DEVONthink Drag and Drop OCR
Using Scanbot to add OCR to files in DEVONthink via drag and drop

It’s amusing to think the introduction of copy and paste to the iPhone was once an event. 12 Copying and pasting was for so long a cumbersome, finicky, and frustrating. With the APIs available to developers in iOS 11, we can now evaluate particular apps on the basis of how well they take-up native technologies, rather than what they can do to overcome a lack of the same. It might have been a stretch to call url-based automation native, but Apple has burred that distinction with Workflow. Regardless, DEVONthink To Go is tapped into both of those features — automation, plus drag and drop — extensively.

Support for drag and drop makes data migration simple through the Files app, or elsewhere in iOS

Drag and drop is pretty self-explanatory, although the version we get with iOS 11 makes it feel like a completely new innovation. It’s deep integration, system wide even mitigates the need for some, albeit minor, automations. The kind of work one tends to do with DEVONthink, however, is ripe for automating. Something the developers are keenly aware of.

The URL scheme in DEVONthink to Go allows a user to build very specific automations for every data type a database can hold. This includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • Create images
  • Create Bookmarks
  • Create documents, including Plain-text, Markdown, Rich Text, and HTML
  • Create Web Archives
  • Retrieve file contents, and/or metadata
  • Perform custom searches

DEVONthink to Go will even perform service tasks via URL, such as indexing, syncing, and rebuilding caches, and you can change app settings. A lot these touches will be beyond most users needs, but it shows the meticulous level of detail that DEVON technologies drills into. More than that, these options provide troubleshooting options that may prove useful as databases become larger, and more devices are added to the chain. If you never use them, they offer security by way of both usefulness and insight into the forethought put to building the app. A it is intended for storing important information, all of this matters a great deal.

In Summary

To button this up, by returning to the question. Is DEVONthink to Go worth buying if you are an iOS only user? The answer remains, yes. Whether it is to act as a repository, a midway for automation, or to distill the need for multiple apps into one. There is a lot going on here. I’m not going to pretend it couldn’t be improved, but then DEVON technologies are nothing if not proactive in that regard.

I’ll also admit that I get more from this, as I use DEVONthink on both macOS and iOS, but that doesn’t diminish its role on my iPad by any stretch. If it were to go away, I would have a serious nuisance on my hands to pick apart the various things it does. As I’ve been writing this, the capacity of DEVONthink for working on iPad has had me peeling back layers of functionality.

At this point I’m aware of so many little things I have missed.This is especially true for Mac users, but that it should be obvious that was never the point of this post. At the moment I am experimenting with building more Workflows for DEVONthink to go, and that includes building on the options I have put together for referencing and citations. In the meantime, I have added a couple below that might be of interest.

Workflows

These workflows are experiments. I’m posting them here as examples of what you can do with automation and DEVONthink. They remain a work in progress. If you are inclined to improve upon them, I would love to hear about it. If you build your own, think about adding them to the Workflow Directory

  • DEVONwiki — DEVONthink's internal linking structure remains consistent across platforms. This means you can use DT2GO for setting up a wiki style research library that will work across devices. This workflow uses a note in Drafts to reference PDF documents added to a DEVONthink database, either directly from the web, or from another storage location. With x-callback URL you can maintain the note itself in DEVONthink. I will post variations of this in future.
  • RSS to DEVONthink — As one of its many powers on macOS, DEVONthink can be used as an RSS aggregator and reader. The iOS version doesn’t have the same feature, but we can achieve a similar result with Workflow. 13
  • Evernote Text to DEVONthink — I mentioned above, the trouble with getting your data from Evernote to DEVONthink on iOS without a desktop computer in the middle. This should be self-explanatory. Bear in mind it will only transfer text notes. I have a follow post in the works for a more thorough migration,

You can pick up DEVONthink to Go on the App Store for US$21.99, with an in-app purchase case of $11.99 for the pro package 14

Until next time, enjoy.

  1. Longer even, since I tried to stay off the internet as much as possible last week for fear of spoilers. Sadly, I’m not joking.
  2. Or something new and shiny at least
  3. Greg Pierce the developer wrote the spec for x-callback
  4. Forgiving the name, that is. I can’t imagine why DEVONthink iOS wasn’t enough.
  5. If you haven't looked at it since version 1, this is a completely different app 
  6. The architecture is currently incompatible for DEVONthink’s version of selective sync, so iCloud Drive is only supported for backup at the moment.
  7. I have the advantage of using a Mac here, I keep mot scrivener and DEVONthink research in sync with Hazel. Something I will post at a later date
  8. The mobile version at least
  9. For iOS see below
  10. The exception here might be picture in picture, but you get the point
  11. Or rather, the developers of that app. Now with Apple
  12. Or testament to the breakneck speed of development since then
  13. Note, depending on how the feed is setup you may need to make changes to this for the desired results
  14. PDF annotations, and selective sync

Learning Workflow iOS: Automate Citation Formatting

Automate Citations Ios Workflow.png

Call it a lack of imagination, but the first time I got hold of the Workflow app I was a little disappointed. The gallery made it look like a lot of fun, but most of the automations seemed a bit gimmicky. I didn’t have much need for a local area, pizza speed dial. There were automations I latched on to, but the app's power lay dormant on my devices. Fast Forward, and among the things I have figured out with Workflow is how to automate citation formatting.

I was something of a late comer to iOS. I wasn’t trying to do much serious work on the iPad when I started playing with Workflow. That meant I still had a lot of walls to hit where limitations of the platform were concerned. It soon became apparent that not only could Workflow do incredible things, it could do many things I needed, that I couldn’t otherwise do on and iPad, or an iPhone. Workflow is both a means for overcoming shortcomings of iOS, 1 and for automating tasks that are repetitive, time consuming or difficult. For a novice, I would suggest the visual programming design of workflow makes it much easier to automate tasks than it does on the Mac.

Getting to Know Workflow

There is a surfeit of ‘getting started with Workflow’ type posts about the internet. For the most I have found they fall into two categories. You have the listicles of workflows that can either be found in the Workflow Gallery itself, or are similar in kind. Basic, but fun. Don’t get me wrong, some of the uses cases you find on those lists are pretty neat. My feeling is they don’t do a lot to help somebody trying to get the most out of the app.

Then you have serious Workflow aficionados. The best known known is no doubt Federico Viticci of Macstories, but there are others. I posted appreciation for Jordan Merrick’s Workflow Directory recently. Another blog I like for iOS automation is One Tap Less. Although, It hasn’t been updated much lately. If you want to get a head start with Workflow, I would suggest listening to series the Viticci and Frasier Speirs put together for their podcast, Canvas. A podcast might seem like a strange medium for learning something like this, but following along will help with the general concepts.

Vital Concepts

If you have never done any kind of programming. Despite the relative ease of the Workflow approach, there might be a couple of things that catch you out. Variables are a good example. Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind I have the fragments of what I learned as a school child in the eighties. At least knew what a variable was when I came across it in Workflow. I know that for a lot of people , it is exactly that concept that stopped them grokking the building blocks that make up Workflow automation. Workflow has gotten more clever about the need for variables, and the way that you can use them. But knowing what they are, and how important they are to the flow of information in a program is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Thankfully, it’s not a difficult concept to pick up.

Getting deeper into Workflow, the developers have done a great job of abstracting concepts like flow. There is another powerful automation app on iOS called Alloy hasn’t enjoyed anything like the success of Workflow. That app has taken the opposite approach, negating the visual programming language by littering the app with esoteric terms. Understanding the flow of input and output is ultimately what makes the workflow applets you build operate as you intend. Which is to say, the further you go, the more likely you will need to understand more of the mechanics beneath the interface. Thankfully, the official Workflow documentation is very good. Then there is a thriving Reddit community of helpful, Workflow nerds.

A Range of Use Cases

To dial it back a little, you don’t necessarily need the most powerful features of Workflow for it to be useful. I have a range of workflow applets, recipes, scripts, or workflows.2 Call them what you will, they range from the most basic, to complicated enough that I’m not confident I could recreate them should I ever need to. 3 Then I have workflows built by other people that hurt my brain. Trying to reverse engineer them has been one of the best ways to learn how to use the app. That is the reason I subscribe to Club Macstories, for the workflows.

As an example of a most simple use case. On the Mac I use a couple of different utilities to turn websites into either single purpose browsers, or something close to a native macOS app. For somebody with their dopamine wires crossed like I have, it can be a real nuisance working with web apps when you tend to have a million tabs open. On iOS, when I need a single purpose browser I create it with Workflow. I then place the shortcut on my home screen. Problem solved.

Ios Workflow Automation

Easier with Web APIs

One area I feel the app provides an advantage over automation tools on the Mac, is how it guides you through using web APIs. 4 Even using a powerful tool like Keyboard Maestro on macOS, you will still need to build and encode URLs to interact with an API. In Workflow, you build the contents of the URL with a form. In turn the App will encode the URL for you. The consequence of this approach is you start to get a picture of what the structure of an API request looks like. I had never worked with JSON before I started experimenting with citation workflows, and yet I didn’t have much trouble putting a request together. If the API has good enough documentation, it isn’t too hard to work out which fields go where. There might be a little trial and error, but that is half the fun.

The upshot of all this fun with APIs is I have workflows to share. I’m going to post the first one here. If you want to keep up with how the effort to add to this, sign up for the mailing list over on the side bar there. 5 The first newsletter will go out in a couple of weeks, I intend for it to include this and some other study and research type tech-fu.

A Remaining Frustration

For academic writing on the iPad, managing citations can still be a pain. Decent citation management is the last remaining frustration for iOS users and academic writing. If I were to code an app for academic users on the iPad, that would be it. You can manage various parts of a bibliographic workflow on the iPad. I use Papers 3 for that job. But on the whole, it remains messy and awkward. 6 This is where Workflow comes in. It can equip you with the tools to build a citation workflow that can solve at least some of the problems for this kind of work on the iPad. If you’re inventive enough, you could put the entire workflow together using Workflow and a text editor. Adding Ulysses , or Editorial into the mix, and you have the tools for an iPad first writing system.

The whole way through my undergraduate studies I never committed a single citation style to memory. With citation managers available, why bother? At worst I could use an online generator. I claim it wasn’t really laziness though. It is an admission of fallibility. As a tutor, and as lecturer I had to take on marking work. Eventually I learned enough about which citation styles were set for the class, so that I could satisfy the requisite pedantry of one who wields a red pen. I just as easily forget the conventions the moment school is out. In the end I would rather automate this particular task and save that precious mind space for something more worthy. Like learning how to use Workflow, for example.

Automate Citation Formatting on iOS

Workflow Automate Citation Formatting on iOS

Workflow’s powerful API interactions opens up all kinds of possibilities. It just so happens there are a lot of bibliographic web tools with public APIs. The idea is to start out simple here.7 To provide both the utility for automatically formatting citations, and an example of a workflow for anyone starting out with the app. Something I hear ad nauseam — because it is true — is learning any kind of automation, scripting, or even coding, will be much easier if you have an end goal in mind. If you start out with a blank canvas, not knowing what you want to automate, you will have trouble learning automation. If you have a use case in mind, or an example to work with, it is going to work out better.

This workflow uses the Easybib Developer API to format a citation in the style that you need. You will need an API key to make it work. They are free to obtain for personal use. It will be easiest to signup for an API key before you download the workflow, as it will ask you for that key when you install it. I have set it up to chose between the MLA, APA, and the Chicago B reference styles. If you need a different style, the API supports more than 6000 of them, so no problem. Just add the style to the list in the workflow itself, it should be obvious.

A couple of quick points for using the workflow. This example is only setup for citing books with a single author. If you have the inclination, Easybib has quite comprehensive documentation so you can builds upon the workflow to suit your own needs, or replicated it for different sources. When entering an author name, use a comma between the first and last names. To suit my own writing preferences, I have also set it up to format the citation using Markdown. If you would rather it used rich text, simply remove the second to last action called ‘make markdown from rich text’. The workflow will then copy a full formatted reference to your clipboard.

If you have no inclination to commit a reference style to memory, this workflow is for you. You can download it here

Any questions, drop me a line. If you want to keep up with my efforts to use workflow for citation management on iOS, signup for the mailing list. 8 The first edition will be out soon, time willing it will include updates to this workflow to cite different sources, multiple authors, and so on

  1. Which are becoming less and less obvious
  2. You probably know the long running joke about this? The app is called Workflow, and its automation sequences are workflows. i.e. Workflow workflows. The term is ostensibly inherited from Automator
  3. Thankfully, Workflow has a sync feature that makes it difficult
  4. Application Programming Interface
  5. I don’t have the capacity or the inclination to spam you. Next year I will get the newsletter happening properly
  6. The lack of iPad multitasking is making it harder to recommend that app to new users. Even on the Mac, the acquisition by Read Cube is making me nervous. The most useful support articles from the Papers site seem to have disappeared?
  7. Not that I have chops to make the most complex workflows. But I’m getting there, slowly.
  8. Eventually this site will have a membership component. It will never be costly, but I intend to make the first 50 subscribers free members. Permanently

Jordan Merrick’s Excellent Workflow Directory

Until Workflow created its own, Jordan Merrick was host to one of the best curated collections of Workflows one could hope to find. The directory was understandably taken down with the advent of an official version, which briefly included a mechanism for sharing workflows among the community of users. Apple’s acquisition of the Workflow team scuppered that initiative, insofar as they have kept open the official gallery within the app, but closed down the community aspect. Thankfully, generous users like Merrick have once again filled the breach. From JordanMerrick.com

In December 2016, I announced that I’d no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn’t make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.

Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it’d make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.

So I’ve decided to do just that, but in the process I’ve made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I’ve added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.

Workflow Automation iOS
How's this for meta, this is a framed shot of the very workflow that framed it…

Workflow remains a glaring gap on this site. To be fair, I’ve not been at this too long, but the real reason is the art to doing the app justice. There are some ingenious users around creating incredibly inventive workflows. By way of qualification for the link to Jordan Merrick.com consider that every image posted on this site that is framed with an iPad or iPhone mockup has been created with either this Workflow, or its predecessor. Not only is it one of the best uses of the app I have come across, but it has saved me epic amounts of time.

There has been a lot of conjecture around the future of the Workflow app, but not only has the app continued to receive updates, the signs are good for some form of future integration into iOS [^ Perhaps even beyond, one can only hope]. The design language of visual automation hits the sweet spot between the über nerd and curious tinkerer, lowering the bar for entry by a remarkable degree. If you are worried that you might pour a lot of energy into something that is fated to disappear, I truly doubt that will happen in such a way that will render your learnings obsolete. The visual programming paradigm that has its roots in Automator has been so well refined for touch interaction by Workflow, that it is here to stay in one form or another. On the flip side, with initiatives like the Workflow Directory, if you swish to do so, you can get a fair amount of mileage out of the app without building any workflows of your own, or at least by adapting some to your own purposes. Of course, if you already have the chops, there is plenty of karma to be gained by pitching in to the directory with a contribution.

Zapier’s integration with Alfred App Launcher

I'm a little behind on this, simply because I planned to do it nore justice than a quick link post like this one. Best laid plans and all that. This is great news for Alfred users, Zapier opens up an already powerful automation utility into an unparalleled beast of an app. The article on the Zapier blog has a good run down of how you might use this. Givcen time, I will try for a deep dive, and post some workflows

Workflow for iOS updated

On the growing list of topics I intend to cover in detail is the indepensible automation app Workflow, which these days is owned by Apple. To dispell the ever-present rumours of Workflow's impending death, the latest in a steady schedule of updates has been released. This time focusing in on a long list of bugs with third-party app and API interactions. If you haven't already tried this incredible peice of software, the is no time like the present.

Automatically Filing PowerPoint Presentations – Automator, Hazel, AppleScript

This came from a response to a fellow traveller in the Mac Power Users Facebook group. I was about to share the Automator action and Hazel rule that make up this little scheme when it dawned on me that this is a good opportunity to share a fairly straight forward workflow you can easily automate.

This is a fairly common need among students. Most good lecturers will share their presentations with you for their classes. Automating the filing of those slides is both, a good way to save a little time, and a way to ensure a consistent and reliable filing system. I don’t know about you, but my file management can get a little haphazard when done manually.

The situation is simple. Before or after class you are either sent, or given access to download a Powerpoint presentation with the slides for that particular lecture. However, you would rather have a PDF copy – or images as my MPU colleague prefers. There are a few ways you can come at this. If you simply want a PDF copy of the presentation, you can use Hazel to call an AppleScript and convert the file, rename and move it, and you’re done. If on the other hand you want images, you could do the conversion with an Automator workflow and simply add the ‘Render PDF as Images’ action to the end. Thereafter, it is a simple matter for Hazel to move the new file to wherever you want it. I tend to have it placed in my PDF Expert folder in iCloud, so I can markup the presentation on the iPad. Here is what the two versions of Hazel rules, and the Automator workflow look like:

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations With Hazel
Automator Workflow does most of the work here.  Either Hazel or Automator can rename and move the file

 

Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations
Automatically File Powerpoint Presentations

If you want to build the Automator workflow yourself — and, there is no better way to learn how to use it — there are a couple of things to look out for. If you have any version of MS Office prior to 2016, you might be able to use the built-in automator action that looks like this:

Convert Powerpoint To Pdf
Previous versions of Microsoft Office included Automator Actions. Whether or not they work will depend on what version of PowerPoint created the presentation

Whether or not that will work for you is going to depend on the version of PowerPoint used to create the presentation. There appears to be some obscure bug with passing Office file names to Automator. As far as I can tell, MS Office no longer supports Automator directly, so you have a choice of hacking what you can from the 2011 actions or using AppleScript. Rather than messing around, trying to debug incompatible actions, AppleScript is your friend here. You can download the script itself here. It is also included in the Automator workflow, which you can download below, along with the Hazel rules. Happy Automating!

Downloads

Hazel Rules

Automator Workflow

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part II

Automation Utilities

Picking up where I left off with the first Mac automation post; we covered some of the more well known Automation utilities on macOS in Text Expander, Automator, and Hazel. To be fair, at least one of the areas I cover this time around is likewise pretty well known, but I also want to highlight a couple of unique utilities that qualify as automation tools. These tools have both explicit and implicit utility for study, research, or indeed any academic related workflows. As with all such suggestions, the limit to what you can do with this kind of software will be somewhere between what you can dream up, and how much time you are willing (or able) to sink into them.

Popclip

 

Automating Academic Workflows

Popclip is one of those apps that highlights a gap in design reciprocity between iOS and macOS. We have always had the right-click [1] context menu to access functionality in OS X or macOS, but Popclip brings an interpretation of the context menu from iOS back to the Mac. The need to port contextual functionality such as copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad led to the creation of the ubiquitous black speech-bubble that appears from a long press on those devices. Popclip takes that idea, brings it to the Mac, and makes it extensible with customizable actions. I have become so used to using it that if ever I’m on a Mac without it I get a little lost. I use it for text transformations [2], Shortening URLs, dictionary and thesaurus lookups, adding tasks to my task manager, adding links to Pinboard or Instapaper, adding references to Papers, translations, and the list just keeps going. This link will take you to the pre-packaged extensions that are available, but the good news doesn’t end there. Not only will a Github search reveal many more ingenious uses for Popclip, and you can even code your own. To get you started with customization, check out Brett Terpstra’s Popclip Extension Generator

Alfred, Launchbar and others (…but mostly Alfred)

Automating Academic Workflows

 

A lot of Mac nerds would argue that a Launcher is the purist’s starting point for workflow automation. If you want to keep your hands on the keyboard, then using a launcher is essential. Spotlight has developed well beyond its basic search capabilities in the past few years to the point where, although still relatively basic, it is much more than a mere search engine and application launcher nowadays. What’s more, Spotlight comes baked right into macOS, so a lot of people will find that hitting command (⌘) space will allow you to do a lot more with the keyboard than you realised.

Alfred WorkflowsGoing beyond Spotlight to incorporate automation is where the best third-party launchers excel. As far as which launcher is the best? That honestly depends on who you talk to, but there seems to be a fairly solid consensus that the contenders are LaunchBar, and my personal favourite Alfred.

Both LaunchBar and Alfred are limitlessly extensible; LaunchBar with Actions and Alfred with Workflows. It is difficult to say how one might choose between them [3], but you may find the keystrokes for one, or the other, more intuitive for the way you work. Other than that admittedly abstract and vague selection criteria [4], it is fair to say the user community around Alfred appears much more engaged and accessible. Both the official site and forum, and the unofficial Packal site, are loaded with workflows, advice and friendly automation ninjas willing to help you down a rabbit hole, or back out of one.

Again, I use Alfred for all kinds of things. The screenshot of my workflows is only part of the picture. Searching my Papers library, converting documents with Pandoc[5], searching my Pinboard bookmarks, making currency conversions, task management input, natural-language entry of calendar events, time-stamping notes, Image Optimisation, file management. Alfred is an onion, and in reality I have barely peeled back the first layer. There is a built-in clipboard manager, and text-expander style snippet function. Anything that you can automate via scripting can be triggered via a launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar, which means they capable of all kinds of complicated tasks. As a bonus, they can manage the simple things too, I even lock, logoff and shutdown my Mac with Alfred – and Alfred also has an iOS remote app that allows me to control my Mac from my iPhone or iPad.

These are not the only two apps of this kind, of course. There are die-hards still using the OG launcher, Quicksilver, and given it is open source and free, for some it remains worth a look. Another old favourite of long-time Mac users is Butler, from Many Tricks. There is the lightweight Launcher [6] from Nulana, which is reknown for its advanced calculator and script launcher. Finally, a couple I feel are worth keeping an eye on, the open sauce Zazu App that bills itself as an extensible launcher for ‘hackers, creators and dabblers’, and perhaps the most interesting new app in tis area Lacona, a natural language launcher built on Node.js that already has web automation triggers through IFTTT. [7]

Dropzone

Automating Academic Workflows

Dropzone is another extensible utility that can thread automation actions into your workflow. Another example of an app that is incredibly useful even in its most basic use cases, or can be bent to one’s will with a little ingenuity. The basic premise is very simple, Dropzone is a menu bar app that extends the drag and drop capabilities of your Mac, it houses destinations and automation actions on the ‘drop zone’. You can use it to hold, copy or move files between apps [8], configure it to upload files to cloud services or an FTP server, or social media sites. The real power of the app lies in the customisable actions – I have scripts for renaming files, stripping formatting from text, making animated GIFs, shortening URLs, and so on – but Dropzone also makes for an excellent conduit to other parts of your system. For example, as part of my workflow for posting images to this site I will take a screen shot and drag it to the images folder configured in Dropzone, from there Hazel will invoke an Automator workflow [9] to resize the image, then pass the file to ImageOptim for compression and removal of personal metadata. I could easily automate the whole process, but I don’t want every single screenshot I take sent to the same place, so Dropzone allows me to have a little more control over the file picking.


  1. Or option-click for you die hard, old-school Apple nerds  ↩

  2. Such as capitalisation, Sentence-case for formatting titles, clearing formatting, hyphenating etc  ↩

  3. Some people solve this by using them both, but I’m yet to find something I need LaunchBar for that I can’t do with Alfred  ↩

  4. And the fact the Alfred’s developers have a commendably irreverent name Running with Crayons  ↩

  5. Rather than using the command line  ↩

  6. Yes, an imaginative name that  ↩

  7. Lacona is available with Setapp, a subscription app store I intend to cover soon  ↩

  8. This might sound silly, but for anyone working with fullscreen apps or split-screen it is seriously handy  ↩

  9. The same workflow in the previous article  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I

 

If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details [2], signatures or often repeated phrases.


  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.

Automator

Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 2
Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.

Hazel

Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 3
Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.


  1. Smile took some justified heat over the introduction of a subscription model with a wildly over inflated pricing model in 2016. The subscription price has come down, but students in particular may still feel inclined to either try one of the alternatives, or use the previous version, which you can buy outright  ↩

  2. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to have forms filled in for them?  ↩

  3. And epically long!  ↩

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automnator Workflow

Working with Drafts for iOS

Gabe Weatherhead oover at Macdrifter.com has a nice post on how to setup the excellent iOS note-taking and automation app, Drafts. If you haven't ever come across Drafts, there really is nothing quite like it when it comes to capturing and processing text on iOS. The JavaScript engine that drives it allows for endless automationpossibiliies, from the mundane, to the borderline riduclous.