The tech world has been whispering about low-code development for years. In 2021, people started shouting about it from the rooftops. Now in 2022, some knowledge of low-code is considered table stakes.
A handful of macro trends have nudged low-code application development into the limelight, and now the movement is having a moment. Tech companies around the world have long faced developer shortages, remote work has become the new normal, and the pace of digital transformation has sped up.
A low-code or no-code approach to creating apps (using visual interfaces, rather than coding languages) helps companies address all three trends by letting more people in on the process of building software. This is a game-changer for companies of all sizes and in every industry.
Read on to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of low-code and no-code development, plus some best practices for deploying these approaches in your organization or workflow.
What are low-code and no-code?
Low-code platforms and tools are as straightforward as they sound: the amount of coding knowledge required for people to use them is low, compared to traditional software development tools. No-code, often used interchangeably or alongside the phrase low-code, means mastering that platform or tool requires absolutely no hand-coding.
Low-code application platforms generally have modular components and drag-and-drop features. This helps teams of non-technical people experiment, make prototypes, and build mobile apps and launch initiatives, speeding up software creation.
Because their user interfaces are so simple and require so little coding experience, low-code and no-code tools have led to the rise of the “citizen developer.” Though application development have involved an IT department plus teams of engineers. Now everyone from the CEO to the office manager can participate.
Examples of low-code and no-code
Inside most organizations, you’ll find plenty of no-code approaches to solving problems. For instance, let’s say your marketing team sends out an email newsletter using software like Constant Contact or Mailchimp. In both programs, users with zero coding knowledge can start with a basic email template, then move components around in a drag and drop interface to create a visually unique, custom-designed newsletter populated with your company’s blog posts, photos, and links.
Or perhaps someone in your business needs to build a website quickly to advertise an upcoming event. They can now choose from hundreds of no-code website-building tools, which offer pre-designed site templates or lead you through a series of steps to build backgrounds, animations, and other features into your website.
What are the benefits of low-code development?
1. Build faster
In fast-moving business environments, low-code tools save time. Three years ago, Forrester analyst John Rymer predicted that—whether you’re in charge of software development or not—circumstances like the developer shortage and rapid digitization make low-code platforms a good strategy for all companies.
He calculated that using low-code tools makes software creation up to 10 times faster than doing it the regular way. Let’s say you’re an insurance claims processor and need to design a way to route incoming claims to various internal departments. You could either add it to your IT team’s long list of priorities, hire an expensive outside development team, or hand your own employees the low-code tools they need to design the routing system themselves.
“You need customized software, and traditional software development can’t keep up with your demands,” Rymer wrote.
You need customized software, and traditional software development can't keep up with your demands.
The reason low-code applications can move so quickly: anyone who understands a business process can build a technical solution that streamlines it, without needing weeks or months to learn a programming language. Automating or streamlining a workflow inside a company then becomes ultra-simple—like building with a Lego set, instead of designing a mold, pouring the plastic, and fully manufacturing new toys yourself. Forrester's Jeffrey Hammond calculated that 75% of app development in 2021 will use a low-code approach.
2. Works with existing systems
There’s no need to rip out existing infrastructure and replace it when you’re working with no-code and low-code solutions. Most low-code platforms use APIs and have other ways to talk to and integrate with your existing tech stack. That could be with an email client like Microsoft Outlook or a payment processor like Stripe.
Let’s say you run a multi-store retail operation and manage inventory with a system like QuickBooks. But now you need help with a new use case: helping your customers order 10 different styles of one popular product. You might use a low-code app for inventory management that lets you build in custom features but also integrates with QuickBooks, keeping the rest of your operation intact.
3. Scale easily
Fast-growing companies need software that scales as they expand into new geographic areas or new markets. Tech is said to be scalable if it performs just as well when the number of users jumps or there’s increased load or traffic on the system. Low-code platforms are designed to perform at a high level regardless of capacity, because many are cloud-based. This means you don’t have to build new servers or storage facilities to handle new volume. They’re also “containerized,” meaning they can run just as well when they’re moved to different computing environments.
4. Gives small and medium companies a leg up
One reason low-code platforms are revolutionary is that they give small and medium companies tools once accessible only to giant enterprises.
Just a few years ago, a slick business application was something only a large company could create—after it hired an army of developers. Now, anyone can do this at a company of any size, whether their product is bicycles or bitcoin.
New research from Accenture suggests that nearly 80% of mid-size companies are more agile with low-code vs traditional development, and more than half of the companies Accenture surveyed said they improved their productivity and speed to market. Around a third of small and medium companies reported they were using low-code tech to build custom applications and overcome the limitations of off-the-shelf software.
The uptick in adoption among medium businesses doesn’t mean enterprises have left it behind. Gartner predicts that by 2024, large companies will use four different types of low-code tools for software development.
5. Retains younger workers
Much has been written about the role of the citizen developer in no-code and low-code tech. But low-code platforms have another trick up their sleeve: they help companies retain younger workers.
Gen Z and Millennials, the generations that grew up creating content on social media, want more control over their everyday work tools. Especially after two years of remote work during a pandemic, young knowledge workers don’t want to be button-pushers—they want to be builders. And they’re ready to bend their software into shapes that better suit their daily routines.
At the same time, this principle can help companies diversify their workforces. Recruiters at tech firms and other types of companies have more incentive than ever to look outside their usual pools of computer science majors to find candidates with nontraditional skill sets and backgrounds.
A few years ago, startup founder Ricky Yean wrote an essay on wealth inequality that sent a ripple through Silicon Valley. He argued that tech creators who grow up poor not only face money troubles but also suffer from a “mindset inequality”—which holds them back compared to their counterparts in better-off families. Defending big ideas around the dinner table is much harder when you don’t have a dinner table, for example. “The world is not a level playing field,” he wrote.
Defending big ideas around the dinner table is much harder when you don't have a dinner table.
Choosing a low-code solution
While professional developers will always be critical to large and small organizations, low-code development lets those developers focus on more sophisticated technology projects. Need to integrate Salesforce with Tableau? Let a team lead use no-code tools to handle the project. Need to streamline the way your company fulfills orders? Pull in your development and IT teams.
Much the same way that automation can be a liberating force from repetitive, mind-numbing tasks, low-code development takes the pressure of everyday applications off of professional developers and frees them up to be true innovators.
When you’re choosing a low-code development platform for your company, there are a few key considerations:
- What type of product or application are you hoping to create? Some organizations lean into no-code tools to enable digital transformation. Others are simply looking to create a single workflow tool. The platform you choose should meet the level of flexibility, scalability, and functionality that you ultimately need to meet your business objectives.
- What data or content will be used with the application? This question is important for a few reasons. First, the way you use the app you’re hoping to create will fundamentally determine the platform you create it with. You also need to consider how your data and content will be protected by that platform’s security measures.
- Who will be using it? Will the platform be customer-facing, or an internal tool only? Users are an important factor when choosing technology because if the technology doesn’t seem intuitive or approachable, they won’t use it.
- Who will manage and update the product once it’s created? Consider the type of oversight and updates the applications might need over their lifecycles. Choose a platform that can be easily managed by a business user, someone who has little or no technical training.
Selecting a vendor
Low-code and no-code platforms vary in the types of problems they’re designed to solve, but here are some key considerations.
- Interface attributes
How user-friendly is the application? Will it make intuitive sense for your staff or users? Some people are more visually attuned, responding better to graphical interfaces, while others work better with data in a spreadsheet-style, linear presentation. Still others prefer hierarchical interfaces where it’s immediately clear which information is most important.
- Cloud capability
Today’s distributed workforce and mobile-first work environments mean all applications should be cloud-native or cloud-supported. That means the platform and any data you input are available and secured in the cloud for use anywhere.
Will this platform let intended users or staff continue working on the devices they’re already using? Closely related to cloud-capability, accessibility ensures your real users can comfortably access and use the tool.
It’s likely the application you are hoping to create will need to work in tandem with other applications and systems within your organization, so evaluate potential platforms to ensure they will be compatible with your existing technology upon deployment.
- Data discoverability
A key consideration when you choose a platform is data management and discoverability. Will you be able to see the data you need? Perhaps you need to monitor several metrics in one dashboard, or share it with executives or your team.
Airtable is a low-code platform for application development. It lets teams build workflows that modernize their business processes and can be tailored to the technical ability of any end user. Its no-code features let nontechnical professionals harness the capabilities of relational databases to optimize workflows. Airtable also grants more technically savvy users to build their own complex formulas and automations.
Whether you’re looking for low-code, no-code, or simply a project management platform to keep you organized and on track, Airtable has the flexibility and robust security to get you started.