Running on smart speakers and popping up on our smartphones, digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri are becoming regular parts of our lives. As with a lot of the tech we use each day, we can tweak these AI helpers to make them work more efficiently.
Specifically, we’re talking about routines, also called shortcuts, which bundle a group of actions into a single voice command.
For instance, you could set a routine up so that, when you say “Alexa, good morning,” your lights would turn on and that morning-motivation playlist would start blaring from the speakers. Or an iPhone use might say “Siri, I’m going home” to trigger a shortcut that sends an update to a family member in a text message, pulls up navigation directions on Apple Maps, and tells the smart thermostat to start heating up.
The real beauty of routines lies in the way you can customize them to suit your own needs and schedule. In this guide, we’ll show you how to start building your own shortcuts for Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri.
In order to create routines with Amazon’s digital assistant, you first need to download the free Alexa app (for Android and iOS) and log in with your Amazon credentials. That’s all you really need, but if you own an Alexa-powered device, you might as well connect that too: Routines currently work with the Amazon Echo, Echo Plus, Echo Dot, and Echo Show.
To get started, fire up the app, tap the menu button in the top-left corner, and pick Routines. As an introduction, the app will gives you some samples to check out. For instance, select “Alexa, start my day” to see a routine that involves hearing the latest news, weather, and traffic information. If that suits you, enable the routine with the toggle switch at the top. You can also tweak the sample: Remove items by hitting the cross button on the right and change the order of events by tapping and dragging the double-line button on the left.
When you’ve gotten the hang of working with these examples, you can begin building your own routine by hitting the plus icon on the top right. Next, tap When this happens—this is where you specify the trigger that will launch the routine. To use your words, pick Voice, but you can also make a routine kick in under other conditions: It can automatically run at a set time (select Schedule), when you push an Echo Button (opt for Echo Button), or when something happens to a different smart device (choose Device).
Once the trigger is in place, choose Add action to decide what Alexa should do in response. You can pick actions from categories such as messaging, calendar, music, news, and smart home (control of your other smart home devices). Add as many activities as you’d like, and when you’re finished, tap Create.
Now you can enjoy playing with your routine in the real world. If it doesn’t work the way you’d like, you can edit or delete it from your phone—you’ll find this option in the Routines entry of the Alexa app’s menu. The more you toy around with these shortcuts, the more you’ll appreciate all the different ways they can make your life easier. Or just have fun—have “Alexa, let’s party” dim the lights and launch a playlist of your favorite dance music.
With Google Assistant, routines work much the same way as they do for Alexa. You control everything through the free Google Assistant app (for Android and iOS). Again, you can optionally connect up a smart device, in this case from the Google Home family.
Once you’ve opened the app and logged into your account, hit More > Settings > Assistant to finally get to Routines. Go ahead and explore the provided samples, such as Good morning and Bedtime. Tap on any of these to see the actions it includes. To make changes, untick a particular action, which will exclude it from the routine.
When you’re ready to build your own routine, tap the plus icon on the bottom right. First, pick Add commands to specify the voice cue that will launch the actions. You can also select Set a time and day if you want the routine to run on a timer.
Next up, select a few responses by hitting Add action. You can choose from popular activities, such as reading the weather or turning off smart lights. Alternatively, you might type out the voice command—like “set volume to 50 percent”—associated with the action you want. When you select certain actions, you’ll have to tap the cog icon to include additional information; if you want to send a text, for instance, you need to specify a phone number and a message. On top of these responses, you can tap Add media if you want Google Assistant to start playing music, podcasts, the radio, news, an audio book, or even sleep sounds (handy for those bedtime routines). Again, hit the cog icon next to any option to configure it further, such as specifying the music you want to hear.
Once you’re happy with your routine, tap the tick icon in the top-right corner to save it and add it to your list. You can still go back and edit or delete routines—just head to the Google Assistant settings and select the Routines entry. To delete a routine you’ve made, pick it from the list and then tap the trash can icon on the top right.
In the case of Siri, routines are called shortcuts. You create them on any iOS device, then run them from an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or HomePod—although not Siri on macOS, at least not yet—connected with the same Apple ID. To begin, you need to download the Shortcuts app (for iOS only—sorry Android users, you’re not invited).
Launch Shortcuts to start building your own custom Siri commands. For a fast start, tap Gallery to view some samples. These include running a playlist, sharing your location in a message, setting a reminder for when you get to work, browsing the top news stories and more. To check out one of our favorites, search the gallery for the Image of the Day shortcut, which takes the current picture from NASA’s daily image feed, displays it on screen, and gives you the option of saving or sharing it.
You might notice that the items in the gallery seem a bit more involved than the routines for Alexa and Google Assistant. A Siri shortcut can pass data between apps and features, or roll up a bunch of actions into one quick command. To get a better idea of how these actions work, you should add a few examples to your library (tap any item, followed by Get Shortcut), then look at the steps in each one (to do so, tap the three dots on the shortcut thumbnail).
To make your own, tap Library followed by the plus icon on the top right. You build shortcuts through actions, which you find by either checking the list at the bottom of the screen or entering specific terms in the search box. For example, you might choose commands that open a specific app, share the current weather in your location, or pull the most recent photos from your Camera Roll.
As you add actions, they stack up, in sequence, in your shortcut. This is the order the actions will follow when the shortcut actually runs. To change their listed order, tap and hold and drag individual actions; to remove them, tap the cross icons on the right. Many actions come with additional settings you can configure—so when you’re grabbing those recent photos, for instance, you can choose how many images you want to get.
That might sound a bit vague, but that’s because the Shortcuts app is so versatile that you can use it in many different ways. Your best bet for understanding how it works is to dive in and start playing around—you’ll soon get the hang of it. In a pinch, go to the main Shortcuts screen and tap Help to request assistance from the app itself.
Say you want your shortcut to bring up the directions to a specific location, like your home or office. First, you need to grab the Street Address action, which actually defines the address itself. Then, add the Show Directions action underneath. This launches either Apple Maps or Google Maps, with directions to the address you’ve specified.
That’s a simple option, but you get the idea. To make it more complex, you could also add a Get Travel Time action that would follow Street Address. Then add that information (the travel time) to a Send Message action—this lets a loved one know how long your commute will last. When you tap the message template, Travel Time appears as a variable you can add to the text.
For any shortcut, you can tap the toggle switch icon in the top-right corner to name it and to specify the Siri voice command you want to launch it. You can even turn a shortcut into a widget or icon for the home screen.