Haven't you always wished Google Assistant could do more with the apps on your phone? Not just launch them, but open specific sections or perform certain actions inside them? Even though Google has been talking about this kind of functionality for years, the reality is that these features have been limited and if they exist, they're nearly impossible to discover. We had to dig deep to find how the new Assistant on the Pixel 4 and 4a can do more in apps and in Chrome, but still, that's nowhere near what Apple and Samsung have been able to achieve with Siri Shortcuts or Bixby Routines — two features I've been eyeing with jealousy for a while. Now, Google is finally starting to roll out its own take on in-app shortcuts, though this is a very timid start. Additionally, Assistant is getting more extensive food preference selections.

Assistant Shortcuts

Long before routines were a thing, Assistant had shortcuts that let you replace a long command with a shorter, friendlier, and more personalized one. Shortcuts are now back, and they still only perform one action (unlike routines), but they're restricted to specific actions inside the apps you've installed on your phone. To set up new shortcuts, you have to open Assistant settings and scroll down through the new alphabetically-sorted list to get to Shortcuts.

There, you'll find a first tab called Explore. It offers recommended shortcuts based on your frequently-used apps, plus a list of all the apps and shortcuts available to you.

For Twitter, for example, there are three options: new tweet, new message, and see twitter messages. For Maps, you can open your saved places or timeline. Tap the plus sign (+) next to a shortcut to add it. To view all the shortcuts you've enabled, head over to the second tab, which is aptly named Your shortcuts. You can also edit the default voice command there or remove it.

Shortcuts also appear inside your Google Assistant routines (duplication, sigh), where you can view them in a different list format and edit/delete them through another distinct UI.

Once you're done adding shortcuts, all you have to do is say, "Hey Google, new tweet," or "Hey Google, YouTube subscriptions," or any other command you've enabled, and it will be executed. This works no matter which Assistant UI you're using, the old one or new Pixel 4/4a one.

Besides the duplication with routines, which is understandable (shortcuts are simpler routines) but not elegant, there are several limitations with this first attempt from Google. First, developers have to implement this functionality in their apps, so you can't create a shortcut to anything in any app as you wish. Second, as far as I can see from the options on my phone, shortcuts seem to only open specific screens inside apps; they don't perform real actions on my behalf. Third, and more importantly, they're pretty basic in that they only do one thing and can't string together multiple actions inside the same app or in several apps. Hopefully, the feature will improve quickly and become more powerful with time.

Food preferences

In addition to the new shortcuts feature, Assistant has improved its dietary preference selections. Previously, only three options existed for gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian diets. Now, you can approve or disapprove of different cuisines and ingredients. The choices are comprehensive and the basics are pretty much covered. So if you really like broccoli but hate tofu, or if you prefer not to eat eggplant but love cauliflower, you can upvote and downvote those. These preferences will be respected when you ask Assistant for recipes on your phone and smart displays, and they'll also influence what you see in the Snapshot's recipe card.

Both of these changes appear to be rolling out with a server-side switch. We have them on our devices, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're live for everyone just yet. So if you don't see them on your phone, be patient; they'll likely come to you soon.

  • Thanks:
  • Nick Cipriani,
  • Anthony Maki