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Surfacing Shortcuts

When I came up with the original concept of RECaf, shortcuts hadn’t been announced yet. I knew the key to any data-logging app is making the act of adding new entries as simple as possible, so I focused all my efforts on reducing log friction. If it takes too much work, you won't get into the habit of logging daily.

I put a ton of effort into designing the simplest logging process possible. RECaf only needs three pieces of information to make a log entry: a source, an amount, and a date. Since most of the time you want to log an item you are consuming right now, RECaf can usually assume the date is now. If you tend to have the same sources in the same amounts regularly (we are creatures of habit, after all) RECaf can notice those combinations and make them more readily available.

Surfacing your top three most frequent sources automatically and making them one-tap buttons, then, became an easy addition. Adding a favorites pane for any extra items you sometimes log helps to capture most everything else. Even custom logging infrequent, non-favorite items I managed to get down to just a few taps on a single screen. Choose a category, source, amount, adjust the date if necessary, and you’re good to go. No scrolling through long lists just to find what you want.

3D Touch shortcuts on the home screen icon, the today widget, and a watch app give you those most frequent items in even more places.

But then Apple announced shortcuts this June, and things got way more exciting. People could just invoke Siri and say “Log Cappuccino.” And that was it. I knew I had to get this into my app immediately.

Using shortcuts with RECaf all summer has been a game changer for me. It’s supplanted most of the need to ever have to log the “old fashioned way.” Shortcuts have finally given me a reason to actually do something with Siri beyond setting a timer or adding reminders. I’m going to be looking to set up shortcuts in as many apps as possible this fall.

But there is one issue with shortcuts—they need to be set up by the customer in order to work. And in order for that to happen, the customer needs to know shortcuts exist in the first place.

And so we run into our old nemesis: discoverability. This is going to be the central challenge for designers working to add shortcuts to apps. Doing this poorly will cost you dearly. Your customers will overlook one of the best features to come to iOS in years. And that would be a real shame.

Counting on Apple alone to make people shortcut-aware would be a mistake. Remember iMessage apps? How many of those caught on with your non-tech friends?

Counting on Siri Suggestions would also be unwise. What are the chances your app will stand out in a suggestions list with 50 other apps competing for attention?

So how did I approach discoverability of shortcuts in RECaf?

Let me start by saying that I do not like to bombard my customers with tons of pop-ups and annoying messages trying to teach them about the app. Especially on first launch. We’ve all downloaded lots of apps at this point. The first launch sequence often becomes a battle of how many screens so I have to swipe or tap though to get to the darn app, already?

If you make the first launch more than a few screens, you’re lucky if the customer remembers anything you tried to teach them. If there are tons of permissions pop-ups involved, chances are they will tap through everything without reading.

I like to stick to what’s absolutely necessary on that first launch. For RECaf, that meant getting HealthKit access permission (because RECaf relies heavily on HealthKit) and (optionally) getting a free trial started. This way the customer can get the full experience of using the app right out of the gate with minimal interruption. You will need to decide what is most important for your particular app.

RECaf does not ask for notification permissions on first launch. (I save that for after your first log.) No prompting for ratings. (How can they rate an app they haven’t used yet? That comes after several days of use.) No tour of the entire interface. (They can do that on their own.) No signing up for any newsletters, etc.

I want my customers to get in and start logging.

So where do I add shortcut prompting?

Well, first I wanted to be sure that setting up shortcuts was easy, and that it could be discovered without any prompting. Not everyone will find shortcuts in RECaf on their own, but it should be possible at least, right?

After a couple of iterations, I ended up with buttons placed on every amount listed on the source detail page, with a microphone icon[1], to indicate the customer would need to record a voice phrase. Maybe this person has never heard of shortcuts. Maybe they’re just curious and want to know what that button does. They tap the microphone, and Apple’s standard shortcut creation screen comes up and does the rest for me.

oolongScreen1@2x

Once you’ve already recorded a shortcut for that amount, the phrase you recorded appears, and the icon is filled in. This makes it easy to see which amounts already have shortcuts, and it reminds you what you need to say to invoke that shortcut. Tap on the filled icon and you can edit or delete the shortcut. I show the phrases on the favorites screen as well.

oolongScreen2@2x

So that takes care of making it possible to create a shortcut at any time for any source. But I’ll be lucky if more than a few people go hunting into the source detail screen on their own.

So how to balance making people aware of shortcuts without bombarding them?

I came up with a nice compromise. Here’s the scenario. You log a particular source/amount combination. (Say a 12 fl oz Café Cubano, as an example.) RECaf checks to see that all of the following are true:

  • You have logged this exact combination of source and amount at least five times
  • You have not already created a shortcut for this source/amount combo
  • This combo is one of the first three where a shortcut was suggested, and then you created the shortcut.
  • You haven’t yet indicated that you’d like to stop being reminded about shortcuts

If all are true, then after the confirmation screen indicating your log was successful, this screen will pop up:

shortcutPrompt@2x

From here, you can read about shortcuts and their usefulness, get a tip on how to create a shortcut for any source in the future, and of course tap a button to create the shortcut right there if you like. I also give you a way to either cancel just this particular shortcut’s creation (maybe you are in a place where you can’t talk right now), or inform RECaf that you’d prefer not to get these reminders in the future. That way, if you want to record the shortcut later, it will remind you again next time. But if you hate the whole idea of shortcuts, you can ignore them forever.

Note my thinking here:

  • At least five times. I’m not going to push you into shortcuts on day one or for everything you log. It’ll likely be days before you see your first shortcut prompt. That’s okay. The app is still great without shortcuts. It’s just better with them.
  • The app is making note of your behavior and predicting your future intentions. The simplest form of machine learning, to be sure. But machine learning all the same. (I’ll have more to say about the more complex machine learning surrounding reminder notifications in a later post.)
  • The prompt happens in response to an action. It doesn’t just show up on launch, when you’re likely trying to quickly log something. It waits until you’ve done your logging and then prompts you with a helpful tip to make logging that exact item even faster next time.
  • After you set up three of these shortcuts, RECaf stops. By then, you get the idea behind shortcuts, and you’ve been shown more than once how to set them up on your own. Maybe you didn’t read that screen carefully, but chances are, you’ll get curious enough to go looking elsewhere in the app at that point.

I know this isn’t perfect. If you always log from your watch, for instance, you’ll never get prompted. If you drink something different every day, it’ll be quite a while before any shortcuts get suggested. Some people will just cancel the screen every time without reading it or just tap the button and get confused. At the end of the day, it’s still a pop-up screen, which is an interruption and a potentially unpleasant surprise if you have no interest in Siri or voice-activated computing. But like I said, it’s a compromise. If RECaf bugs you once, you tell it to never bug you again, and it obeys, I’m okay with that.

The alternative is the majority of my customers missing out on what I think is the killer feature of the app.

I’m very curious to see how other designers and developers approach this problem. It’s challenging designing these solutions in a vacuum, before you get the benefit of seeing other approaches. Perhaps once I get a glimpse of some other apps with shortcuts, I’ll revisit and develop it further.

I’m also curious to see how shortcuts are adopted by my customers. With any luck, the majority will be logging with their voices a few times a day, then carrying on, only launching the app occasionally to see their stats.

RECaf will be available shortly on the App Store. To find out more, visit the web site or sign up on the mailing list.


  1. I settled on a microphone, rather than a Siri icon, as I was not clear that using the official Siri icon would be allowed by app review. Better safe than sorry. Besides, I’m not sure the average customer would recognize the Siri icon at this point, or be able to surmise how Siri and my app are related at this stage. A microphone is a pretty universal icon for recording something at least. You may mistake it for recording voice notes, or something. But if you tap it and learn about shortcuts instead, it’s not the end of the world. ↩︎

Apple Uninvents Time Travel

Me, back in April 2016: “Get rid of Time Travel. It’s a gimmick, and I activate it accidentally more often than not.”

Today, on AppleInsider:  RIP Time Travel - A seldom-used Apple Watch feature set to disappear with watchOS 5 

Far too many items on the rest of my list are still pending, though.

Say Hello to RECaf

I’ve been talking myself out of building this app for three years.

That’s how long I’ve been logging my caffeine intake with my iPhone and wishing there were a better way to do it. Over the years, I’ve tried just about all the caffeine apps. Most were outright terrible. Some had lots of promise but ended up withering on the vine as developers couldn’t afford to keep them up to date.[1]

So why make this app now? And why should RECaf’s fate be any different?

I generally don’t subscribe to the “scratch your own itch” philosophy of app building. An itch isn’t necessarily the foundation for a good business. I had seen many caffeine trackers come and go, and I wasn’t sure there was a way to make one that would be any more successful financially. Better to spend my time on the next “big” idea that was going to become a full-fledged business, right?

But early this summer, after a few conversations with friends, I finally figured I might actually be able to turn this itch into something at least mildly profitable. And since the “big” idea hadn’t revealed itself yet, and because I had some spare time, I figured I might as well try and see where it leads.

Here’s what a caffeine tracker in 2018 has going for it:

  • Apple’s HealthKit. Apple has invested a lot into health and fitness, and it’s a category that consistently gets a lot of premium shelf space on the App Store. This is an area of growth in the App Store, which is a good thing. Also, the HealthKit APIs are modern and rather well written. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to pick up and learn. And since Apple handles all the data storage for health data, I don’t need to worry about it. Your data is encrypted, syncs across your devices, and I have absolutely no access to it. Which is exactly how I like it.
  • Siri Intents. The new custom Intents in Siri for iOS 12 are perfect for this sort of app. Any sort of logging/data tracking app’s biggest challenge is making data entry easy enough that you won’t stop doing it. Saying “Log Iced Tea” into your wrist is about as easy as it gets.
  • Intelligence. If I did my job right, RECaf will do some fancy machine learning as you log. That means your most frequent caffeine sources will always be readily available with a single tap in the app, the Today Widget, or your Watch. Over time, RECaf also gets pretty good at predicting when you usually have your morning caffeine fix. Thus, the app can remind you on Wednesday at 10am when you forgot to log that 9:15 latte. And with interactive notifications you can even adjust the time of the log without launching the app. This has been the biggest issue for me as I’ve tried to track my own daily intake. I simply forget to log. RECaf constantly updates its learning engine to create notifications that will be helpful, not annoying. If you skip caffeine altogether on Fridays, you won’t get a notification on Fridays. If you have green tea on Mondays but Earl Gray on Tuesdays, RECaf will adjust accordingly.
  • A sustainable business model. Five bucks a year. If you drink two or more caffeinated beverages a day, that’s less than a penny for every drink.[2] Considering many folks here in New York are paying upwards of $4 to $5 per drink at their local cafe, $5 once a year is quite reasonable, I think. Thanks to subscriptions being pretty much the norm these days, I think many of my customers will agree. With a two-week free trial, I should have plenty of time to convince some of those on the fence that it’s worth becoming a yearly subscriber. Between consistent reminders based on true learning, and the health benefits of knowing the details of your caffeine intake, RECaf is more of a service than an “app” in the traditional sense. (In fact, I suspect you’ll be spending less than a few seconds at a time in the app itself—if that.) The data is the real value. What’s killed every other caffeine tracker in the App Store so far is that super low, one-time cost. There just aren’t enough stats enthusiasts out there to make that sustainable long term. With a subscription, a couple of thousand stat junkies would be enough to keep this app in business.
  • Side-project status. I don’t expect to make my entire living with this app, ever. If it makes me enough to cover a month or two of expenses every year, I’d be thrilled. That would certainly justify keeping it up to date with the latest and greatest advancements from Apple.
  • A singular focus. Sure, there are food-tracking apps that also happen to include caffeine. There are water tracking apps that include caffeine. There are Shortcuts/Workflows that can be customized to track your caffeine, if you’re a complete code geek who wants to tweak for several hours to make the workflow bend to your specific needs. None of these options is going to make your caffeine tracking anywhere near this effortless.

On day one, when I built my first prototype of RECaf, it immediately replaced every other app I’d ever used for tracking caffeine. Now that I have most of the features built out, it blows every other tracker out of the water for me.

Thanks to RECaf, I now know how many times in the last week I’ve had caffeine after 2pm (twice), that I’ve averaged about 392 mg per day over the last 30 days, and that 49.1% of my caffeine intake comes in the form of simple black coffee. I know that on Wednesdays my first drink is usually coffee before 8 am, and that 67.5% of my caffeine is consumed before noon. (This sort of fun with stats gets addictive pretty quickly.)

Thanks to HealthKit, I can look at stats from other apps, such as the awesome Sleep++ and compare my caffeine intake with the quality of my sleep. (Turns out, that occasional after-dinner espresso doesn’t effect my sleep at all. YMMV.)

If you’re interested in tracking your health statistics, and you consume caffeine regularly, caffeine tracking should be a part of your daily routine. I encourage you to give RECaf a try when it’s released later this fall. The first two weeks are on me.

If you want more information, or you want to be among the first to get RECaf, head over to RECaf.app and sign up for the mailing list.


  1. RIP, Cortado. I had to give up on it when the iPhone X came out, and I realized it would never be updated to fit my screen. It was a great app for its time. But to me, the focus on trying to predict my coffee logging solely based on location, rather than past logging, was a shortcoming. Sure, it could predict when I made it into a coffee shop. But it never figured out that I make coffee for myself at home every morning. ↩︎

  2. Finally, an app that can be aptly compared to the price of a cup of coffee! ↩︎

Leverage

If you make an app and want people to buy it, you have to link to the App Store so your customers can get it.

If you write reviews of apps, you need to post links to the apps, because your readers will think you’re nuts if you don’t.

Given this, it’s hard to argue that the Affiliate Program, whatever it cost Apple, was the best use of Apple’s money. Apple had all the leverage, and it acted accordingly, as anyone should expect. Continuing the program would be an act of goodwill, maybe, but there are more effective goodwill investments, no?

There are benefits sometimes to spending cash on things that aren’t necessarily profitable. Clean energy initiatives. Matching employee donations. Investing in accessibility. These do wonders for the brand and for the morale of your team. And yes, they actually make the world a better place.

"Keeping review sites and indie devs from going bankrupt" clearly doesn’t quite make the cut. I doubt the average person knows the Affiliate Program exists, and they wouldn’t much care if you told them.

As a friend of some who are going to lose money because of this decision, I feel bummed. No question, it will effect real people in a real way. But let’s face it: any bad PR/backlash is going to be shortlived. And after the few days of rage passes, Apple will have tens of millons—if not more—to invest every year in other things it deems more worthy.

Maybe that’s cold, but business ain’t ever warm and fuzzy.

Tim Cook only gets to say “I don’t care about the bloody ROI” so many times. He’s going to make sure each one counts.

All Demos are Lies

I’m not particularly interested in whether or not the Google Duplex demo was faked. (The fact that Google didn’t even think to address the ethics of the technology was far more interesting—and frightning—to me.)

But if I had to guess: Google made a real phone call, but to someone who had been prepped to follow a very specific script. That way, they were sure to get the responses they wanted. Not so much a complete fake as a contrived circumstance that didn’t demonstrate how this app would behave in the real world.

The call could very well have been to a real hair salon, even. Not hard for Google to call ahead and get someone there to answer the phone in a specific way.

All demos are lies, to some extent. Some more than others.

I guarantee if they called a hair salon in my neighborhood in Manhattan, Duplex would go off the rails fast. I didn’t need someone to cry foul to figure that out.

Call me when Duplex ships. Which could very well be never. Until then, faked or real demo—it’s not a product.