Driven by a shortage of developers, a desire for internal business efficiency and an attempt to empower non-technical experts, no and low code platforms have proliferated in recent years.
The terms no and low code are used mostly for app development platforms, but they are part of a broader trend of the democratization of technology, referring to any task that once required coding but can now be completed by a business user.
App development platforms, website builders, AR visualizers, email builders, ecommerce platforms, design platforms, data science tools, and integration platforms all offer no or low code solutions to tasks that would have required extensive coding in the past.
These solutions can be a boon for businesses as they allow business users to innovate without waiting for developers. In addition, it gives the experts (whether they are in marketing, accounting, design, or operations) more control over their tasks and workflows. This allows for higher quality outputs as no subject matter expertise is lost in a back-and-forth with developers. It also speeds innovation and time to market.
While the business reasons for no and low code platforms are sound, the platforms can fail to live up to expectations. When evaluating a no or low platform, it is important to evaluate the following potential drawbacks.
Security can be an issue when business users are building apps or automating workflows amongst different apps without any oversight or protocols around access. Though no and low code platforms, when properly used and designed, can be a way to avoid “shadow IT” that crops up when business users implement their own software solutions, it can also create a shadow IT of its own.
A no or low code platform should have built-in governance and security and that restricts the ability of business users to create applications or code that is unsafe. In addition, IT should have oversight and knowledge of what is being created.
The most common problem with no or low code platforms is that, for more complex use cases, they are too rigid and restrictive to produce the desired results.
No code platforms work by locking certain blocks of code into visual components that a business user can manipulate. These bundled building blocks are inherently more restrictive than the underlying code.
One developer at a medium sized company shared his experience with no and low code platforms, “We tried to have the business [users] develop the [low code platform] workflows and it absolutely failed miserably. Essentially all of these [low and no code] tools still require pretty serious knowledge in web services, database design, software design, reporting, etc.”
Even the best no code platforms have their limits, and it is important to properly align their functionality with their capabilities. They will often work well for simple use cases where the predefined, visualized building blocks match well-known business needs or processes. Complex apps, integrations, data science or workflows will still necessitate more than a no code platform.
Another hazard to watch out for is no or low code platforms that actually require developers beyond any but the most basic of use cases.
One reviewer of a low code app development platform Filemaker wrote, “Filemaker generally requires the help of a consultant or developer if you want it to reach its potential.”
A different user explained their experience with no and low code platforms, “They are fine for simple things … but then the customer will come up with more detailed requirements … and then you end up programming those new requirements with traditional programming, which is even harder because what you customize yourself has to fit in with the platform.”
In such cases, the user concluded that the developers spent as much time coding in and around the platform as if they had built the solution entirely from scratch.
In addition, when developers are forced to work with these visual component systems, they face the frustration of learning a rigid and esoteric system that lacks general applicability. This means fewer developers who know how to use the platform or want to learn. No or low code platforms that require such work are usually a net loss to the business.
One way to identify whether a no or low code platform requires extensive coding to work is the number of developers who are offering services to build on the platform. A high volume of these consultants can signal an esoteric system that is complicated to work with and around.
As one of the primary benefits of no or low code platforms is increased efficiency and agility in the business, the more training required to use the platform, the less compelling the case is for buying them.
It is important to assess how long it takes a business user, and if needed, a developer, to get up to speed to use the platform for their intended business goal.
Remember that employee turnover and a lack of a desire amongst employees to be specialized in a specific, limited platform will make platforms with a long training and onboarding stage even more expensive to operate over time. If there are a cadre of consultants and developers who are selling implementations of the platform, it probably isn’t as easy as advertised to use.
If designed properly, no and low code platforms can benefit a business’s ability to innovate and improve their outcomes by fully leveraging non-technical expertise. However, many of these platforms’ capabilities are more limited than advertised, and ultimately require extensive developer resources when a business moves beyond very basic use cases.
It is important to understand what a no or low code platform can actually accomplish and the resources it requires. Assess whether, once this is considered, it is beneficial to have in the tech stack, and, if so, for what particular business purposes.
An ideal no or low code platform should empower developers and business users to each do what they do best. Developers should not have to code around clunky and limited visual elements in an esoteric system, and business users should be able to fulfill their business goals without learning to code. Platforms that meet those objectives - and align their use case with their functionality - can deliver on the promises of no and low code technology.