Introduction to Microsoft Flow

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Flow is Microsoft’s platform for building processes that connect to your data and allow people to do their work more efficiently and effectively. It’s the successor to SharePoint Designer workflows.

In this article we’ll look at the essential concepts of Microsoft Flow, including basic data connections, triggers, and actions. We’ll also provide some general usage instructions and learning resources. After reading this article, you should be able to begin creating flows of your own to automate processes in your work and personal life!

Get Started

If you have an Office 365 account, you can begin using Microsoft Flow by going to flow.microsoft.com and signing in, or by selecting Flow on the Office portal home page or in the Office 365 app launcher (the “waffle” menu).

App icons on Office 365 portal home page

Did you know… Even if you don’t have an Office 365 account, you can use the free version of Flow by simply registering with your email address…

Flow Sign up free option

Use a Flow template

But whichever way you have opened Flow you end up on the Flow home page. An easy way to create your first flow is to choose one of the many templates that are available. Just select Template from the menu on the left side of the Home page, and then you can search for the type of thing that you want to automate. For example, maybe you know that you want to do something with email, so you can click on the Email tab and look at those templates.

Or maybe you want to do something with SharePoint so you could type SharePoint in the search box and then you’ll see all the templates that are related to SharePoint. There are hundreds of templates, so it’s quite likely that you’ll find something close to what you’re trying to achieve that you can at least use as a starting point for your own flow.

Microsoft Flow template list

To use a template, simply click on the template tile. Flow will ask for your credentials for the services being used in that template, and then the flow will be created. Note that some templates will also require you to enter some required information. For example, the template called Start approval when a new item is added [to SharePoint] requires you to select a SharePoint list, and to fill in the email address of the person who must approve the item:

Fields to fill in the template Start Approval when a new item is added

After filling in those items, click Save in the upper right corner, and your new flow will be active and will run the next time a new item is added to the SharePoint list you selected.

Flow Structure

Let’s break apart that flow template we just created, to see how a flow is built… Below, I’ve clicked on each box to collapse it and make the overall diagram easier to see.

Approval flow diagram

First, every flow must begin with a Trigger. There are three basic types of triggers:

  • Manual (button): This can be a button on your mobile device, or a physical button such as flic.
  • Schedule (recurrence): An example is a flow which automatically runs once a week on Friday afternoon.
  • Event driven (most triggers fall into this category): Some examples might be when an email arrives with a particular subject, when a tweet is posted mentioning your company name, or the example we just looked at (when a new item is added to a SharePoint list).

After the trigger, every flow must contain at least one Action – something for the flow to do. This could be something like sending an email, adding a file in a SharePoint document library, or as in our example, beginning an approval process. There are also actions such as delay for a specified time, or logical “actions” such as the Condition (yes or no) we’ve seen, or looping through a sequence of actions for each item in a list.

Connectors

Another key feature of any flow is the Connectors it uses, which are connections to various online services. There are currently over 200 Connectors available for Microsoft Flow, which include most Microsoft services and many, many non-Microsoft services such as Salesforce, Mailchimp, Twitter, and others.

Flow connector icons

Note that some connectors are labeled as Premium, which means that to use them you must have a paid Flow license – that is, more than the free version, or the version which comes with Office 365. In addition, to use any connector you must have an account with that service, so that you can enter login credentials to create a connection.

But as you can see, the possibilities are nearly endless, as a single flow can connect to any number of services. However, your Office 365 or Flow administrator may put policies in place to limit the use of some connectors within the same flow.

Build your own flow

After trying some of the available templates, you may wish to build a flow of your own from scratch. So let’s see how that’s done. Let’s say we want to capture tweets mentioning our company name and save information about the tweets into a SharePoint list for analysis.

To begin, go to the Flow home page, select My flows from the left menu, then +New, and Create from blank.

Create flow from blank

Flow will give you some suggestions of popular triggers to begin with, one of which is When a new tweet is posted, but for this walkthrough, we’ll Create from blank instead.

Popular triggers

You’ll be taken to the Flow diagram screen to select your trigger. However, before doing that, I would recommend naming your flow by clicking on the word Untitled in the upper left, and type a meaningful title, such as Save tweets mentioning Lightning Tools.

Beginning to create a flow

Add a trigger

Next, you can see that some of the most popular services and triggers are displayed, but you can also type into the Search box and/or select one of the tabs to find other triggers. However, for our example, Twitter is listed here, so click on that icon to see the triggers which are available.

Twitter trigger information

As it happens, there’s only one trigger available for Twitter, so click on that. But before you do, you may wish to click on Learn more in the help bubble. This will take you to the connector reference, which is really quite helpful in giving detailed information about each connector, its triggers, and its actions. In fact, you can also click on the Actions tab to see that there are quite a number of actions available for Twitter, such as posting a tweet, getting a list of followers, etc.

At this point, if you have not used the Twitter connector before with flow, you’ll be asked for your Twitter credentials to create the connection. After you have done that once, then the Twitter connection will be available for you to use in future flows without needing to log in again.

The Twitter trigger requires you to enter some sort of criteria (Search text) for capturing tweets, such as a term or hashtag, or who a tweet is from:

When a new tweet is posted action

In this example, we can type the Twitter handle of our company, and we might also want to add OR the actual company name, in case someone tweets about the company without using the Twitter name.

Add an action

Next we need an Action. To add an action, click on +New Step below the trigger. Again, a number of popular services and actions are suggested, but you can search for anything that’s not shown, either by the connector name, or by any part of the action name. For example, if you know you want to Get something from somewhere, you can begin your search with the word get, to view actions of that type.

Choose an action dialog

In our example, we want to add an item to a SharePoint list. So we can click on the SharePoint icon to see the list of available SharePoint actions, one of which is Create Item, and select that. (Note that there is also a Create file action, which refers to creating a file in a SharePoint document library rather than an item in a SharePoint list.)

SharePoint actions

Of course, we will have needed to already created a list with the appropriate columns, and then that’s the list we will select within the action. You will be presented first with a dropdown to select a SharePoint site, and then a dropdown showing the lists within that site. After selecting the list, the action card will display fields from that list, so you can specify what the flow should enter in each field as the item is created.

Dynamic Data pane for Create Item

When you click into a field within the action, you’ll see the Dynamic Data dialog, which allows you to select any data element from any previous step in the flow. In this case, there has only been the trigger so far, so you see all of the fields available from the Twitter trigger.

Note that if there is a See More link in the upper right, you can click it to get additional fields. To select dynamic data, simply click into the SharePoint list field within the action, then click on an element in the Dynamic Data dialog. After doing this for each field, the Create Item action might look something like this:

Create Item action with fields filled

And that’s all we really need for this flow! Just click Save in the upper right, and the flow will be activated.

You can then click on the Back arrow, to go to this flow’s dashboard, where you’ll eventually be able to see a log of each time this flow runs – that is, each time a tweet meets the criteria specified in the trigger.

Flow dashboard

Conclusion

This should give you a basic understanding of what Microsoft Flow is and how to create a basic flow.

For further learning, here are a few good resources:

Microsoft Flow Learning Path

Flow Community forums and blogs

Jon Levesque’s YouTube channel (Jon is Senior Product Manager for Flow at Microsoft)

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