No-code mobile app development: Do more with less
Developers are tired of switching their focus back and forth between projects, and business folks are tired of waiting for developers to get their projects — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
The rise of mobile development is enabling more work to get done on the fly, and the explosion of no-code development tools in the marketplace is enabling business users to create their own mobile solutions without relying on developers.
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“There are many businesspeople who face specific problems, and although they may have the ideas to overcome these hurdles, they are dependent on IT teams to turn them into practical solutions. If you train your employees to solve their own IT-related problems, they can become more versatile, independent, and overall way more successful at their job,” said Chris Obdam, CEO of the no-code enterprise app development tool provider Betty Blocks.
The need for no-code development has come out of the demand for digital capabilities, said Jeffrey Hammond, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester. There are just not enough computer science professionals available, he explained.
In a recent Forrester mobile executive survey, when asked how many technical resources respondents had dedicated to mobile, on average most organizations only had around 20 technical people for mobile. “If you are trying to build native applications with that kind of staff, you are lucky if you are going to get more than five applications out. If you are a large organization, you simply don’t have the amount of technical development resources available to build and maintain these applications. Getting the business users involved and helping them meet their needs, even if the app might be a little simple or not have quite the fidelity of a full blown native app, it still provides a lot of value to organizations,” said Hammond.
According to Obdam, there are various definitions of no-code, so it is important to note what no-code actually means. “No-code generally implies that you can build an application without the need for traditional programming. But the type of applications that no-code can build are very diverse, depending on the provider,” he said.
No-code isn’t just for business users
Typically no-code solutions are targeted at business users while low-code solutions are targeted at developers. No-code enables business users to create apps with no programming experience while low-code gives developers the option to manipulate the code.
“For the end-user there is no difference. It’s the process of building the application that varies. If your IT team doesn’t have a problem with working with new tooling that hardly requires any coding from them, then it’s a great solution. However, if your developers really enjoy traditional programming it might be more sensible to opt for a low-code solution,” said Chris Obdam, CEO of the no-code tool provider Betty Blocks.
While there is a lot you can do within no-code solutions, sometimes there is still a need to drop into and manipulate the code, said Jeffrey Hammond, vice president and principal analyst for Forrester, so experienced developers tend to stay away from the no-code solutions.
According to Obdam, native mobile development still “requires real craftsmanship,” and seasoned developers prefer to take advantage of underlying technology and techniques. “There are many traditionally schooled developers who enjoy the fact that they don’t have to code as much as they used to, whereas others might find it harder to distance themselves from coding. For them, a full-on switch to no-code might be a bit much.”
Obdam added that no-code is a good option for novice developers who want to get their hands dirty with mobile development. “Although the chances of adopting a no-code solution are smaller among seasoned mobile developers, no-code does enable less experienced developers to start tinkering with mobile application development. Making a mobile app used to be reserved to a select few, but with no-code tooling, you see that many more people become very capable of building their own mobile applications.”
The rise of no-code in mobile
A major trend happening in the mobile space today is that organizations are actually starting to look deeper into why they are building mobile applications as opposed to just building them and hoping things will turn out right, Forrester’s Hammond explained.
“In the early days, companies said they had to have a mobile app because the competitors had a mobile app…almost like that State Farm commercial where the agent says ‘well I have a mobile app, too’ even though he doesn’t,” he explained.
What is beginning to happen is organizations are concentrating on their mobile spending, and since organizations usually only have enough in the budget to do a couple of native mobile apps a year, they are starting to seriously consider no-code. “All the things that employees need or use often go unfulfilled or they are not maintained even if they are built because there are just not enough resources to do them, so it creates a need for no-code,” said Hammond.
In addition, almost everyone has a mobile device today. It is an intimate form of enabling communications and that is something businesses really want to take advantage of but haven’t been able to, Hammond explained.
Because of this problem, business’ software needs are not being met. Mobile apps are becoming time consuming and too expensive to build. “There’s a whole lot of smart people working in every company, in every line of business within the company, who see software as an answer to a wide variety of their problems — whether it’s about too many manual processes, or lack of appropriate data collection, analytics and insight from the data, or the lack of intelligence in a lot of the processes. So all of those opportunities exist, and the demand for software is growing. Yet, there’s no fundamental change. Software is actually becoming tougher and more expensive to build,” said Praveen Seshadri, founder and CEO of no-code platform AppSheet.
One option is to buy something off the shelf, but it rarely ever works out, Seshadri explained, because every business has unique and specific needs. “It’s this confluence of forces where everybody’s got a device, everybody can visualize quite easily the applications they might build on the factory floor, in a warehouse, out on the farm, or whatever it is. And yet it’s increasingly incredibly expensive, time consuming, to build these applications, so they’re not getting built. So that’s this pressure situation, and that’s why you’re seeing a lot of talk about low-code and no-code,” Seshadri said.
The applications being built with no-code are typically not applications that are going to be used by millions of end users, they are primarily built for internal productivity, Betty Block’s Obdam explained. “No-code is especially useful for mobile apps that focus on small processes for specific types of employees. A dock worker for instance, spends most of his working hours outside carrying only a mobile phone or tablet. It becomes interesting when this person can oversee all the processes relevant to him while on the go,” he said.
Seshadri explained that no-code can actually speed up mobile development processes and free up IT workers, who were forced to build these business apps because they were the only ones who could create the software. By empowering a business user to create an application you actually empower the people who understand the problem to turn their ideas into reality, Seshadri said.
“It becomes faster to build because there is no longer any back and forth between the business and IT department on what needs to be built and why,” said Seshadri. “Why would they ever want the developer? Even if a developer was available, it’s still way faster, and you’re not translating this how to somebody else’s going to do it, and then give it back to you, and go back through this process again when you could do it yourself. So, no business user would want to do it if they can build the apps themselves. Or somebody in their organization can build the apps themselves. So it’s actually somebody who understands the part of the business, the process they are actually in.”
Obdam added, “Long story short, no-code allows you to create specialized mobile apps that are part of a larger ecosystem. That’s where a no-code platform can truly excel: You build a platform supporting multiple mobile apps that are linked to a central back-office. Every part of the ecosystem can be created with no-code. In that way, no-code facilitates the entire process, which also makes it easy to oversee and govern each component.”
The no-code mobile app process
No-code mobile apps are often built by business users for business users, meaning it doesn’t go beyond the organization’s employees. However, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have to undergo the same scrutiny that a consumer-facing mobile app does.
According to Forrester’s Hammond, there has to be some level of governance put in place as organizations begin to expand their use of no-code. There needs to be someone in charge to offer advice and help during the process, and there needs to be rules and standards about what apps should be created and how they should be created. In addition, the IT department should not be left out of the loop, especially if you expect them to maintain the applications.
“IT ends up playing catch up because they weren’t aware that this was going on or are asked to maintain these apps. It is better to be proactive about that governance process because in general you can put an app out without doing any traditional testing,” said Hammond.
From a security perspective, business users need to be aware of compliance, security, and risk management policies. “From a security perspective, if you have people punch holes in your existing security posture to get access to data and you are not on top of that, then you increase your threat surface without even realizing it,” said Hammond.
AppSheet’s Seshadri believes all this can be solved with the proper platform. “The fact of the matter is code is incredibly hard. Performance tuning, very hard. Making sure things are secure. Very hard. Honestly, you do not want developers writing that code. Because almost always every 20 lines of code has a bug in it. What you want is a platform to give you security by default. You want a platform to give you a scale and performance by default. Without letting them mess it up. And that’s what no-code platforms do,” he said.
Similarly to how users don’t worry about security or performance when using something like Google Docs or Office 365, business users should not have to worry about implementing security when developing no-code apps. “They should be given an abstraction, and a model that says, here are the security abstractions,” said Seshadri.
Additionally, a platform should enable business users to go in and make changes, updates and add new features once the application is built. “If you enable a business user to build whatever you define as their first version of their application, it’s the equivalent of giving a mouse a cookie. Because their needs don’t stop with just the mobile app, or all the workflow messaging. But their ambitions around the apps they need to build,” Seshadri explained. “There’s a whole end-to-end system around it. And that end-to-end system needs to be built. You need to be able to update it. You need to be able to manage the data, do whatever ETL, archiving, reporting, analytics, auditing, scale it out if they have more people, deploy it in different languages… All of that needs to be available to the business user, but ultra simplified.”
No-code mobile apps in the real world
It is easy to talk about the benefits of no-code development for mobile applications, but how do these applications actually look and behave in the real world?
Tutti Gourmet, a gluten-free and allergen-free cookie and snack manufacturer, recently turned to no-code development to automate several processes. “I consider myself a moderate to advanced Excel user,” said Elijah Magrane, operations director at Tutti Gourmet. “When I came here, everything was done manually by hand—either with paper or by physically entering data into a spreadsheet. So, my first order of business when I started was to overhaul the process.”
Some of the solutions Magrane created with Appsheet’s tool included a timesheet for employees to track hours, production logs and summaries, and production, inventory and documentation applications.
“If we’re not up on our documentation, we could get a recall, which would probably put us out of business,” said Magrane. “Now, I receive notifications when expiration dates are approaching. This way, I can stay on top of all our documentation for our suppliers. This has been really really helpful.”
In an effort to undergo a digital transformation, energy company Kentucky Power recently turned to no-code to help move away from paper and digitize processes such as automating anything from inspection and incident reports to employee communications. Some of the prerequisites the company were looking for in a mobile development solution was that it had to have a built-in scanner to track serial numbers, enable users to create new forms and work orders as well as update existing ones, and be able to develop fast. With no-code, the company was able to create apps that tracked failed or damaged electric poles, transformers and circuits.
“As a pilot, we started with the Transformer Tracker in our Ashland shop with three or four foremen, who have to collect information about transformers,” Paula Bell, a lean team member for Kentucky Power, said in a case study. “After about a week of use, a foreman from another shop called me, and said ‘Hey Paula, can I have that thing that Rick uses to get serial numbers?’ When someone asks to start using a new tool based on another user sharing it, to me, that’s success!”
Lastly, KLB Construction turned to no-code because it was cheaper and more effective to build its own custom solution that met its specific needs than to buy the construction management software solutions already available. Some of the applications the company created included field management, daily reports, reimbursements, near misses and incidents and safety alerts.
“Everything is starting to get connected and even an underserved industry like construction is going to have to adopt new technology to stay with the curve. Larger companies have more resources and seem more willing. KLB is already an early adopter in construction technology and that has made us far more efficient and productive,” Richard Glass, director of information services at KLB, said in a case study..
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