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Automation for Designers: An Introduction

For the past few years, the media has often presented automation as a grim future where robots steal the jobs of hardworking people. While there are certainly specific jobs that have been eliminated by automation, the truth is that automation in many industries simplifies or removes mundane tasks and opens up new opportunities for deeper, more rewarding work instead. The same is true in the design industry.

Machine learning and automation will not take over our entire creative role—unless designers are only performing at the most basic level. Instead, automation tools can help us automate away much of the boring, painful, or repetitive aspects of our process. They can save us time, mental energy, and unnecessary effort that we can funnel into harder, more creative endeavors.

When should we automate?

The great thing about automation is that we don’t have to do it all at once. We’re not building a factory where every step of the process is reliant on the one before. Instead, we can pick and choose to automate things that are painful or repetitive and find ways to make them automatic.

So how do we know when to automate? Look for some of these when evaluating our work:

  • Is this repetitive? Repetition is one of the key strengths of automation. Why do something over and over if we can do it once and make it repeatable? The hardest part of choosing whether to automate repetitive tasks is knowing whether building the automation will take more work than just performing the basic action a few times.
  • Is this boring or dread-inspiring? There’s nothing wrong with boredom, but as designers we crave creative fulfillment. Admit it. Mundane tasks often take a back seat to the more interesting creative ones on our plate. (That or they completely subsume them.) If we can automate our tedious tasks, that can shorten or eliminate the time it takes to do them.
  • Does this involve multiple tools? The moment we switch tools in a task is often the moment when we are more prone to distraction. By deploying automation tools at these key moments, we can keep our process on track.

How do we automate?

Building an automation is like building habits, just for computers. According to James Clear, the habit cycle is comprised of four steps: Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward. For automation, we can ignore the psychological aspects and focus mostly on Cue and Response. First, something needs to trigger the automation. Common cues for automation include:

  • Noting when a file is created or updated: Computers are very good at noticing when files change. This type of cue is useful for all kinds of automation, from basic notifications to complex multi-step manipulations. (Note that in this case, files can also be databases, websites, emails, etc.)
  • Looking for certain phrases or content: One basic example of automation many people already use are email filters. These look for specific content in the subject, sender, body, and more and then perform different actions accordingly. Another common example of this is text replacement tools (which we discuss more below).
  • Checking that environmental variables are met: Another frequent use of automation is to trigger at specific times or by other specific environmental criteria. For instance, having lights turn off at sunrise, emailing a calendar reminder 30 minutes before a meeting, or sending an alert to bring an umbrella if there’s rain in the forecast.
  • Watching for actions: Action triggers rely on some form of interaction — whether that’s with a digital interface or something physical. The user submits a form. A door opens. Someone presses a button. These are all actions that can trigger responses.

Once we’ve decided on the proper cue, it’s time to figure out how the computer should respond. With the magic of computers, this can take almost any form. As we’ll see below, there are tons of tools that can automate all kinds of triggers to any number of responses.

The automation tool set

The tools to automate our workflow can range from apps to built-in OS features to web services. Below are a few of the most common tools, but as we flex our automation muscles, we can uncover a lot more.

Zapier & IFTTT

Screenshot: The Zapier homepage gives a brief overview of the many tools it can connect.
The Zapier homepage gives a quick taste of just a few of the apps you can connect together, along with some popular zaps (their term for a recipe).

Zapier and IFTTT (which stands for If This Then That) are the first tools for automation that come to mind. They are both web services that connect hundreds of disparate apps and APIs using recipes. IFTTT is probably the better service to start with as it is free and very user friendly. Once you find yourself wanting to connect more services or add multiple steps to your automation, you’ll know that you’re ready to move on to Zapier.

Using them, we can trigger things automatically when a document updates, pipe data from one service to another, and even automatically respond to various inputs. The only limits to what we can do with these services are imagination and the APIs that our preferred tools provide.

Here are a few quick examples of things we can do with Zapier or IFTTT:

TextExpander

Screenshot: The TextExpander interface shows a list of snippets with their associated shortcuts as well as several groups of related snippets. It also shows a selected signature snippet and an email in which the snippet has been inserted.
The TextExpander interface shows your list of snippets in the left panel, including any groups of snippets. The larger right panel lets you create and customize an individual snippet. Image courtesy of Smile Software

While not alone in this field, TextExpander is one of the most well-known (and powerful) text replacement apps. With TextExpander, we can type a simple shortcut, and it will replace that with a defined template of longer, more complex, or even data-driven text. With fill-in-the-blank tools and data insertion, we can customize snippets even further. The promise for simple replacement is quickly obvious: fix common typos, insert your email, etc. But its flexibility allows us to do even more than we might expect, with just a bit of planning.

  • Create email templates for common tasks like contacting research recruits.
  • Create fillable templates for user stories, research objectives, and other common artifacts.
  • Automatically correct common typos.
  • Place standard code boilerplate or components from a design system.
  • Insert options from a random set of realistic placeholder data.

Hazel

Screenshot: A sample Hazel setting screen shows how it detects a movie file and can apply labels, rename the file, move it, and sort it into a subfolder.
With Hazel watching your folders, you can easily have it check for specific file types and then perform a myriad of actions on those files. Image courtesy of Noodlesoft

Hazel can watch specific folders on our Mac and perform actions when files or folders appear inside them. These actions can be as simple as moving those files to a specific folder or as complex as multi-step manipulations complete with notifications.

  • Automatically file new screenshots to a specific folder to keep the desktop cleaner.
  • Create nested subfolders when a new folder gets added to the Clients or Projects folder.
  • Resize, optimize, and upload or share images when they’re exported to a specific folder.

Siri Shortcuts and Automator

Siri Shortcuts and Automator are both handy glue apps that can tie multiple apps and systems together on our Mac or iOS device. Siri Shortcuts (previously known as Workflow) is currently the best option for linking together apps and APIs on the iPhone or iPad, though rumors suggest it may be coming to the Mac as well in the next version. The existing option on the Mac is Automator, which has long enabled powerful automation tools.

Other handy tools to explore:

The above are just a few of the most well-known tools available for helping us automate some of our work. There are tons more, for all kinds of different uses. Some of our existing tools may even have automation features. Here are a few other favorites worth checking out:

  • Retrobatch: This is handy for manipulating large sets of images. (It’s possible to do a lot of this with batch processing in Photoshop as well.)
  • Drafts: Drafts can be a handy place to store notes, but it also includes powerful tools for processing text and sending it elsewhere.
  • Keyboard Maestro: This is another handy app for performing all sorts of actions at the touch of a key (and other forms of input).
  • Application launchers like Alfred or Launchbar.

Where can you learn more?

There are tons of automation nerds out there with way more experience than me. Follow David Sparks, Rosemary Orchard, Federico Viticci, or Brett Terpstra for just a few examples. If you want to dig into more of what automation is all about, check out the Automators podcast on Relay FM.

Finally, I’ll be digging into this in more detail over the coming months as I explore different tools and how designers can use them to be more effective. If you’re using any tools to automate part of your workflow, I’d love to hear from you!

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