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. Given 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, signatures or often repeated phrases.

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.

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automator 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.

Starting with Text Expansion

This little gem from Brett Terpstra illustrates just one of the ways text expansion can be used. One of my as yet unstated goals with this blog is to hopefully lower the barrier for entry to some of the wonderful, simple automation tools available on the Mac. For anyone dipping their toes in the automation water for the first time, I will often suggest text-expansion as an ideal place to start. There are numerous utilities available for this, from apps like QuickKey, TypeIt4Me and Typinator to what is considered the gold standard in TextExpander.