no code on laptop screen

Low-code and no-code platforms help people with little development experience to build their own software solutions. Low-code and no-code has rapidly evolved into a burgeoning industry that promises more functionality in reduced timescales.

These new approaches to software development allow more people to get involved. Creating a new solution from scratch is costly, time-consuming, and reliant on the availability of highly skilled individuals. Low- and no-code platforms provide opportunities to turn existing staff members into part-time software developers.

Most current platforms are aimed at businesses and seek to facilitate workplace automation. The idea is to take the traditionally opaque concept of “software development” and make it as accessible as writing a document or creating a spreadsheet.

Low-Code or No-Code?

A low-code development model still involves hand-coding some elements of the system. The platform will provide pre-built components which are rapidly combined into a final solution. The end-user needs some basic experience with a programming or scripting language to tie the components together.

No-code platforms cut out the code altogether. These systems let you build complete apps without any programming experience at all. You set up data models and create your system’s frontend using the platform’s interface. It’ll then guide you through the deployment of your solution.

No-code is great for non-technical teams who want a zero-effort platform. Low-code solutions offer greater power, as you can add more advanced custom functionality. They have a slightly steeper learning curve though, making them best suited to more technical teams that want to ship software more quickly and at lower cost.

Which Solution Is Best?

The low-and no-code market is still expanding. Various platforms are available, depending on what you’re trying to build and the level of control you require.

At one end of the spectrum, there are basic automation platforms like Zapier and Microsoft Power Automate (previously Microsoft Flow). These tools let you set up automated processes that integrate different standalone systems. Your data’s stored independently of the automation platform.

The next step up is to platforms that do store your data. Airtable is a popular option in this category. These systems combine the data storage functions of a database with the reporting options traditionally associated with spreadsheets. Add in an app-like look and feel and you end up with a versatile data entry and analysis system.

Above Airtable are platforms that really focus on creating apps. Services such as Microsoft Power Apps and Google AppSheet give you the ability to create systems with functionality to rival native apps. The result isn’t truly standalone – although AppSheet is planning to add native iOS and Android builds – but this can be the only practical difference compared to a “real” app.

You’ll also find platforms aimed at more specific use cases. These include Webflow for websites and Shopify for e-commerce. Content management systems such as WordPress can also be considered low-/no-code platforms, even though their development may predate the common use of these terms.

Benefits of Low-Code and No-Code

The most obvious benefit of code-less development is its reduced impact on the business. The model lets existing team members quickly retrain to build any software that’s needed. You won’t need to hire dedicated developers or bring in costly external teams.

A side-effect of this is improved efficiency during the development process. You can more quickly identify and remedy issues if you’re not waiting for developers to compile a new build for each release.

Code-less development also helps you unify your software around a single tech stack. If you’re already storing data in Microsoft’s or Google’s cloud, using Power Apps or AppSheet lets you build an interface on top of it. There’s no need to move data out to a dedicated database, so everything stays in one place.

Low-code is comparatively low-risk. You can easily experiment with low-code platforms to assess their feasibility for your project. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have incurred little or no cost. Low-code platforms also have a role as prototyping systems: you could create a demo of your system that’s used to trial an idea, before hiring a developer to create a feature-complete coded version.

What About The Drawbacks?

Despite the hype, code-less development isn’t for every business. There are several pitfalls you should look for when evaluating any low-code platform.

Arguably the biggest issue is the proprietary vendor lock-in you’ll need to accept. If the software provider changes its platform, you could end up with business apps that don’t work or which need untimely updates. While it may seem unlikely today, plan for an eventual platform shutdown so you’re not caught out.

In a similar vein, maintaining and extending a low-code solution can quickly become frustrating. It’s possible to “outgrow” your platform so it starts to constrain you. Think about the future – how might your business change? Which new features can you foresee? Your apps should fit your business, not the other way around.

Although code-less development is meant to be accessible to all, in practice it’s still a specialism that relatively few people are currently acquainted with. You’ll easily find external contractors to work on spreadsheets, databases, and coded systems; getting an AppSheet or Power Apps expert might be trickier should you ever need one.

Finally, don’t assume coded software will always be more costly than low-code. A skilled developer might be able to create a “from-scratch” app in less time than an inexperienced team member needs to become productive in a low-code platform.

When to Use A Code-Less Approach?

Considering all the above, code-less development works best for easily defined business apps that are unlikely to require much ongoing support. It’s an ideal model for letting individual teams build out their own apps and automated processes, especially when you’re already using other features of the service platform. A marketing team could use a low-code app to pull product details from your database and publish them to your social platforms.

Code-less might not be the best way to approach an open-ended system that’s going to be developed perpetually. You risk outgrowing the platform and having to migrate to a custom-coded solution. The initial cost and time savings are typically wiped out by the ensuing disruption. Carefully evaluate all options before adopting a code-less model for a critical business system.

Low- and no-code platforms might be buzz words but they’re here to stay. Used correctly, they can greatly accelerate digital transformation processes by letting less technical users contribute to software development. They remove the tedious aspects of programming so you can focus on the functionality your teams need.

Profile Photo for James Walker James Walker
James Walker is a contributor to How-To Geek DevOps. He is the founder of Heron Web, a UK-based digital agency providing bespoke software development services to SMEs. He has experience managing complete end-to-end web development workflows, using technologies including Linux, GitLab, Docker, and Kubernetes.
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