The Age of the Workflow Designer

Computers fly our planes, drive our cars, count our steps, set the temperature in our home, and in the future they’ll do more than we can imagine possible today.

Every task that can be automated will be. Future workers will design automated workflows more often than they will complete individual workflow tasks.

Think about the work you do each day. Notice how that work is a series of atomic tasks joined together into a chain of events and actions. How many times did you repeat a task? How often did you copy and paste content? How many times did you switch between apps?

Just as we look with incredulity at the worker whose job was replaced by a spreadsheet cell, work as you know it today will seem absurd to the future worker. Any task that can be done by a computer, will be. The stage is already set for this imminent destiny.

Automation

Interactions over APIs are a conversation between apps that don’t require our intervention. The data we store in apps represents physical or non-physical objects (nouns), whose attributes (adjectives) are manipulated with actions (verbs). These are the canvas and tools for automation design. As API coverage grows, more tasks are automated.

Computers are appropriating more tasks through Artificial Intelligence inside apps. We are already conversing with bots we welcome as teammates in our group chat or interact with, sometimes unknowingly, to schedule meetings. Messaging as an interface is on the rise.

AI + Messaging UIs (Slack, Magic, and Facebook M)

The decentralized, trustless systems of bitcoin, where appropriate, render entire industries unnecessary. Smart contracts automate the transfer of assets (money, cars, real estate, creative content usage rights, the estates of deceased family members…) and trigger real world actions based on complex criteria (i.e. water my crops only if a specified volume of rainfall is reached) with unprecedented transparency, without human intervention.

Drones may be bumping up against societal comfort limits, but they, combined with cheaper, high-quality cameras, have empowered us to capture stunning aerial footage without needing to rent a helicopter, pilot, and the expensive gear needed a few short years ago. Drones and robots perform tasks in hours which used to take farmers days (or weren’t even possible) and boost crop yields and optimize water usage. Drones are learning now how to deliver our packages.

Smart devices (and the IoT) automate everyday chores like turning on the coffee machine in the morning and turning on the lights just before you come home. They eliminate the need to check on things that can be measured with cheap sensors. Connected to the cloud, they can automatically download updates from networked apps to get smarter and more efficient over time.

Workflow Design

What work will you do once computers do your work for you?

You will become a workflow designer — a conductor and curator orchestrating chains of automated tasks.

As technology evolves into a hierarchy of abstractions, you will stand at the top, structuring sequenced events with ease to accomplish higher-level goals.

But, as with all new technological shifts, there will be a learning curve to attain this proficiency. You will need to learn to think a little more like a programmer. You’ll need to use conditional logic to create automation beyond the most trivial use cases to filter only some of events to trigger a step in a workflow.

The mindless, repetitive tasks you know today will be gone, and creativity will be required when you’re designing workflows. You already do this today when you schedule and perform tasks, you just don’t document how many small decisions go into that work. To train computers, you’ll have to get granular and specific.

Once you’ve mastered these new skills, you’ll join a community of curators sharing workflows as much as we now share blog posts. You’re job will be to make things happen with as little work as possible.

Workflow Design Tools

For non-developers, workflow design is in the tinker toy stage, with painfully simplistic tools. We are children with oversized legos that don’t always fit together. But now is the time to begin learning the new skills you’ll need to stay employed in the future.

Here are 3 tools you can use to start learning how to design automated workflows. With all of these, it helps a lot if you can think of a goal you’d like to accomplish. What task can you automate that will keep you motivated when learning these tools?

1. Zapier
If you use SaaS apps (Google Docs, Salesforce, Trello, Github…), learning how to make integrations on Zapier is a great time investment. Full Disclosure: I used to be a product designer there. With over 500+ apps available plus a developer platform where you can add your own, Zapier is the largest platform of the three tools listed here.

People use Zapier for everything from Lean startup concierge testing and functional prototypes to moving data from form submissions to spreadsheets. Start by seeing what tasks you can automate with apps you already use before exploring what you could do with new apps.

Try a free account where you can experiment with 5 workflows, and then you can decide if it’s worth a paid upgrade to use it more. Tip: there are exciting new features in the works at Zapier, so ask their support team if you can be a beta tester to see how powerful this workflow design tool can be. 😉

Website | Support | Examples

2. IFTTT
If you’re interested in the Internet of Things (IoT) or use consumer apps (Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, Evernote…) give IFTTT a try. The product name is an acronym that explains conditional logic (“if this, then that”) and they’ve done a wonderful job in working to simplify the complexity of app integrations.

IFTTT has a flagship product, IF, which you can use on your laptop and mobile devices as well as a product named DO, which is similar but where the trigger side (“if this…”) remains the same. Play with IF if your goal is to dabble in workflow design.

Website | Support | Community | Examples

3. Workflow
If you have an iPhone or an iPad, you can play with Workflow, an Apple Design Award-winning app that works a lot like Zapier and IFTTT but is closely integrated with native iOS apps like Safari and let’s you automate useful native features like image editing.

The design constraint of crafting workflows on a mobile devices have led to some clever interactions like dragging actions across screens. It’s colorful and friendly, but it’s still challenging to get started with. Again, there’s an active community (a dedicated sub-reddit and tutorials strewn across the web); it’s smaller than IFTTT’s, but large enough to be helpful if you know how to Google the right search terms. I definitely recommend using workflows shared by other users as examples to learn how things work.

Website | Support | Community | Examples

Don’t Panic

To some this coming shift for workers might seem ominous, but I believe we’re moving in a positive direction. When we look back at this stage of technology, we will laugh at how we physically tethered ourselves to tiny screens. Sitting for 8 or more hours each day is not healthy for humans. We need to be dynamic and not fixed in any position or mindset, and workflow design will fit nicely into that improved context.

Start small. Look for tasks in your daily workflow you can automation today. Keep a lookout for repeated tasks — that’s often a indication you’re overqualified for the job as a human. It’s easier than learning how to code and you don’t need to become a developer. If you start learning workflow design today, maybe you won’t be obsolete tomorrow.


Bonus Links
- The MIT Media Lab Reality Editor shows a creative approach to interactive workflow design.
- The Grid is an A.I.-driven website builder that is playing with how even the most creative workflow tasks can be automated.

Please leave a response with what you’d like to learn more about (automation, APIs, apps…) so I can help you prepare for your new job as a workflow designer!