This week's sponsor

Setapp

The first subscription service for Mac apps


Reasons for Web Automation

I've been thinking a lot about web automation and whether I should keep investing time and money into IFTTT and Zapier when I can't seem to find problems that need to be fixed. For years, I fiddled with web automation, recipes, and connecting services together, but I've never really relied on web automation and I feel like I experimented with it because I liked the idea on principle.

Like others, I started out with IFTTT and eventually sought the more advanced features of Zapier. I like IFTTT's simplicity and diversity of channels; I enjoy Zapier and its ability to use multiple accounts for each service, parse email messages as templates, and productivity-oriented approach with a fair business model. But I can't seem to be able to stick with either for the long term and I often make up excuses to keep using them because it's what geeks do.

There are lots of combinations made possible by IFTTT and Zapier, and I guess that part of the problem is my rusty imagination when it comes to web services, as well as the fact that I rely heavily on native apps and local automation for iOS. Over the years, I did come up with recipes to automate my Internet accounts – things like archiving tweets to Evernote, turning files in Dropbox into todos, and getting push notifications for new entries on an RSS feed or YouTube channel. With the exception of the latter, I stopped using and depending on each recipe at some point, and I didn't miss it.

I've considered my usage of web automation, and I've found some basic issues that affect my perspective for this sort of product. While there are hundreds of more specific and advanced uses cases, I've identified five common types of web automation:

  • Logging (save numbers/data to spreadsheet/documents)
  • Cross-posting (send a message from one service to another)
  • Archiving (copy bookmarks/tweets/files from one service to another storage solution)
  • Alerts (push notifications for something that happens elsewhere)
  • Home automation (WeMo, Nest, Withings, etc.)

I've realized that my particular work requirements, available hardware, and software taste rarely fall under the kind of scenario envisioned by IFTTT and Zapier.

  • I don't own much home automation hardware. I only have a Withings Smart Body Analyzer and a Withings Home.
  • I don't find archiving tweets, likes, faves, or other entities of content in different places useful anymore. Most of the services where I perform these interactions have search features. Pocket and Twitter have powerful search options to retrieve anything. I don't want to clutter my Evernote account (and therefore search) with content that's there “because you never know”.
  • I don't cross-post to multiple services.
  • If I need to automate a web service, I typically want an immediate response and therefore rely on apps like Pythonista, Editorial, and Workflow – which also have ties to native apps on my devices.
  • I forget to browse or otherwise enjoy the data that I hoard in different places with web automation.

Furthermore, iOS 8 extensions have removed a huge obstacle that could be avoided, in the old days, with web automation. These days, it takes me two taps to send any webpage from any iOS 8 app to other services (via apps) that offer extensions. I struggle to find a reason to, say, automate my RSS service remotely when its iOS app has a share sheet. As I wrote in September, iOS 8 extensions have changed how I work because of the native functionality they bring to several parts of iOS that used to be isolated and slow.

I also believe that I'd use web automation more for the messaging type of tasks if IFTTT and Zapier were quicker. If I'm going to use a recipe to paste a message in Slack but then it won't show up for five or more minutes, I might as well just open the Slack app and send the message myself. The same goes for other combinations of apps that I tried over the years: both IFTTT and Zapier seem to be built for an average delay of at least five minutes between the trigger and the action. Even if they're often quicker than that, I can't afford to let critical tasks depend on delays or, worse, errors.

Last, a note about Zapier. I'm a big fan of the service's more advanced options and especially the email parser and ability to connect multiple accounts. I'm using Zapier to receive notifications for new Apple videos and press releases via Pushover, and it works well. I like how Zapier's ingredients for actions offer more customization than IFTTT and many parts of its UI and creation flow make more sense than IFTTT. But there's a big issue for me: there's no way to trigger “zaps” natively on iOS like you can with the IFTTT app or Launch Center Pro's excellent IFTTT channel. Yes, you can resort to workarounds such as sending emails from Drafts, but you only add more layers of possible failure to a system that's already built on external integrations. For this reason, even if I wanted to offload some tasks to web automation, Zapier couldn't be my only service – at least not until they provide better iOS support.

Maybe web automation isn't really for me anymore. It's a nice extra, and it's cool to play around with recipes and see the potential of APIs working together, but I can't depend on it. Local automation with iOS apps is usually faster and more powerful for me, and I've only found a couple of tasks that I want to automate remotely. Right now, besides notifications, I'm logging my Jawbone UP sleep data to Google Sheets (for charts that are actually useful) and I save some expenses to a spreadsheet. And that's about it.

But I'm still wondering if my lack of imagination could be a problem, and if there could be tasks and workflows based on web automation that could work with the right mix of speed and reliability. Which is why I've asked about this today on Twitter – you can find all the replies I got below.

I'll keep playing around with Zapier and IFTTT. In the meantime, we'll always have Workflow.


Unlock MacStories Extras

Club MacStories offers exclusive access to extra MacStories content, delivered every week; it’s also a way to support us directly.

Club MacStories will help you discover the best apps for your devices and get the most out of your iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Plus, it’s made in Italy.

Starting at $5/month, with an annual option available. Join the Club.

A Club MacStories membership includes:

  • MacStories Weekly newsletter, delivered every week on Friday with app collections, tips, iOS workflows, and more;
  • Monthly Log newsletter, delivered once every month with behind-the-scenes stories, app notes, personal journals, and more;
  • Access to occasional giveaways, discounts, and free downloads.