Attempting Email Templates in iOS

About four years ago, I decided to take on our customer service emails at my job. In addition to getting a better sense of our customers’ needs, I wanted to dive into service in order to refine our process. The endeavor would have been impossible if not for TextExpander and its ability to create long-form emails with just a few keystrokes. Over the years, the process has evolved to the point where, in many cases, all I need to do is type four keystrokes and enter in two pieces of information to create a long form email. We now have one TextExpander snippet that accommodates over 50% of the messages we receive.

While TextExpander works in many iOS applications, it doesn’t work with Apple’s Mail.app or popular email applications like Mailbox. Even if it did, it’s unlikely that there would be a way to take advantage of the prompts that make this workflow so effective. Over time, the software limitations of iOS caused my iPhone and iPad to serve as triage devices rather than a true solution for email. I’ll delete and defer messages and answer personal ones, but all of those service emails need to wait until I’m sitting in front of my Mac.

Attempting to Improve My iOS Email Workflow

With the release of the latest update to Launch Center Pro, I set aside some time to see how I could best emulate my customer service workflow. I decided I’d try out the built in iOS Shortcuts, TextExpander touch and Launch Center Pro to see which offered the best answer. Long story short, I found a better bad way. Now for the long story …

My Mac Workflow

As I mentioned, when on my Mac, I use TextExpander to respond to these emails. With a single snippet, I’m prompted to fill in the customer’s name and am provided with a field that allows me to enter specific details about their request. As a significant number of these requests are for the exact same thing, I use TextExpander’s ability to set a default prompt with our most common response. In many cases, I can enter the customer’s name, hit enter and send the message. In others, I enter the name, overwrite the default prompt, hit enter and then send the message. Either way, the process takes about ten to twenty seconds. It gives our customers everything they need and allows us to focus our limited resources on what matters most, offering better service on our products.

Adapting This for iOS

I’ve tried to make this work in the past and there’s no way to emulate the approach described above in iOS. Ideally, I like to reply to a customer email using a template that allows me to add a customer name and one custom section of text, preferably with the ability to set default text that can be easily overwritten to accommodate a range of requests.

Limitations in Mail.app, iOS keyboard shortcuts, Launch Center Pro and TextExpander touch have led me to wait until I’m in front of a Mac to reply to these messages. This slows down response times, so when the latest version of Launch Center Pro was released, I decided to take another shot at creating something a little closer to my ideal workflow.

iOS Keyboard Shortcuts

It has been a while since I gave the built-in option a look. Since I would be able to use this in any application, it seemed the logical starting point. As there is no way to build prompts, I’d have to manually go to where the name belongs. I would also need to find, select and delete my default prompt in the cases where it needed changing (or create a few variations for common requests). This seemed a worthwhile compromise, but unfortunately upon copying and pasting my email template into a new shortcut, I found that the built in keyboard shortcuts do not maintain line breaks. When testing it out, multiple paragraphs were merged into a single block of text. In other words, iOS keyboard shortcuts was a dead end.

Once I had eliminated the built-in option, I had to see if there was a workflow that would offer a more effective way to create these messages, even if it meant using multiple applications.

TextExpander Touch

Next on the list was TextExpander touch. I wanted to see if I could use the same application where I store the customer service email templates. TextExpander touch makes it easy to copy a snippet to the clipboard, but it doesn’t let you fill in the prompts. I could paste the text into an email, but then I’d have to delete the prompts or create multiple versions of my snippets without the prompts. Considering I’d have to:

  • Start replying to the email
  • Jump into the TextExpander touch app
  • Find and copy the correct snippet
  • Jump back into email
  • Paste the text
  • Add in the person’s name

This ended up not being a viable solution. I’d still be better off waiting until I was back at my Mac.

Launch Center Pro

After eliminating iOS keyboard shortcuts and TextExpander, I turned my sights to Launch Center Pro and their latest update, version 1.1. The new release enhanced TextExpander support and I wanted to see what was possible. At first I just created an action that added my customer service snippet to the clipboard. Unfortunately this did not take advantage of the prompts within the snippet. It functioned much the same way as the copy option in TextExpander touch.

Our email blasts essentially take the following form:

Hi (Customer Name),

This is the intro to our service email. We can certainly help you with (your specific request). Here’s everything you’ll need to know.

And so on…

Best Regards,

Email Signature

To achieve this I created an action that replaced the customer name and details of their specific requests with prompts. This was meant to serve in place of my TextExpander snippet. After triggering the action and filling in the prompts, the completed text would be added to the clipboard. I managed to make this work, but there were shortcomings.

The text field in Launch Center Pro is limited. There’s no room to edit, scrolling through is a pain and once you save, the format of your text changes. In other words, editing and versioning (duplicating an action and making minor changes) is a pain. This makes Launch Center Pro suitable for short bursts of text, but painful for multiple paragraphs. This limitation makes editing and versioning a headache, but when all was said and done, I had an action that allowed me to:

  • Start replying to a message
  • Jump into Launch Center Pro
  • Trigger my action
  • Fill in my two prompts (although there’s no way to set a default and the prompt auto-capitalizes, which can be a pain if your prompt is mid-sentence as mine is)
  • Jump back into an email
  • Paste in the text and send it off.

This was good, but not great.

Launch Center Pro and TextExpander

Before putting this little project aside, I decided to see if the new TextExpander integration in Launch Center Pro 1.1 could make things even easier. To overcome the limited text field in Launch Center Pro I created two new snippets using the text from our customer service emails. This allows me to use TextExpander’s larger text fields rather to make any necessary edits. From there, I used Launch Center Pro to tie everything together with the following action:

Hi [Prompt],[Prompt]

This allowed me to create actions that were far easier to edit. It also made it easier to create multiple actions in Launch Center Pro to simplify things further. While I still use the prompt above for unique requests, I was able to create a group of actions that replaces the second prompt with all of our most frequently asked questions.

In most cases I:

  • Start replying to an email
  • Jump into Launch Center Pro
  • Trigger the relevant action from my group
  • Fill in the customer’s name (and the additional prompt when necessary)
  • Go back to the email
  • Paste in the message and send it off.

It’s not my ideal solution, but it lets me do a bit more of the heavy lifting on my phone when needed.

Bottom line, the latest integration between Launch Center Pro and TextExpander offers slightly more efficient ways to create email templates in iOS, but it’s yet another case where the simplicity of iOS adds complexity to my work.

8 Responses to Attempting Email Templates in iOS

    • I’m sure this would be equally effective in many ways. The action groups in LCP make using multiple templates easier, but if you always had multiple variables, you can likely use a Drafts action as well.

  1. I keep wondering if their is a way to add commands that LCP recognizes directly in the body of the TextExpander content… For example if you wrote something all out in text expander, all your iteration and tweaking is done there, but while writing add the fun little LCP [prompt] directly into the snippet and have launch center recognize it and offer the prompt position while executing. I really may have no clue what I’m talking about now that I think about it… haha! Maybe drafts could accomplish this, hmmmm….. Or hell, some enterprising young developer could whip up a truly outstanding email client, or at least an add-on app that handles email templates and mail-merge type fields. There’s definitely a need! I’d pay for it. ;)

    Nice post, I love reading your blog! If you’re on adn, i’m @jaggers thanks!

    • Sadly no, but I have the same hope for an email client eventually. Would love it if more apps could figure out how to take advantage of the prompts in TE or if TE would expand on this in their own iOS app. At the moment, it does what it’s meant to: serving as a sync engine for TE for use in other apps with editing capabilities and limited actions. They could also lead the way in pushing this forward. I have a feeling we will continue to see innovation here.

    • This would ultimately function the same way that Launch Center does. While many apps integrate with TextExpander, there aren’t any that can directly take advantage of the built in prompts.

  2. Thanks for those amazing tips and your great workflows Michael. I’m definitely sure you will be more productive if you start also integrating Dispatch to your daily habits. The app is an action-based email and works with Omnifocus, Things, Drafts, Evernote and so many more other great apps! Here is the link http://tinyurl.com/n4y36tu

  3. I find another app called Email for Business to be really good. The best part about the app is its Digital Signature. It is amazing.

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