It often makes business sense to code microservices, customized applications, innovative customer experiences, enterprise workflows, and proprietary databases. But there are also times when the business and technology teams should consider low-code and no-code platforms to accelerate development, provide out-of-the-box technical best practices, simplify devops, and support ongoing enhancements.
Low-code platforms come in several categories. Some focus on tools for rapidly developing web and mobile user interfaces and workflows. Many data visualization, data integration, and data prep tools are low code, and emerging low-code platforms support machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), and IT automations.
I recently shared seven low-code platforms developers should know and how the big public cloud companies are investing in low-code offerings. If you are an IT leader, consider reviewing these lessons from CTOs using low-code platforms.
For this post, I concentrate on low-code platforms that enable application development, support, and enhancements. I’ll share some insights on selecting low-code platforms. Although the types of reviews and activities for selecting any platform are common, there are several nuances to selecting low-code capabilities.
1. Identify and evaluate multiple use cases
Low-code and no-code capabilities became popular during the past few years, especially in 2020 when many businesses had to build and upgrade applications rapidly because of Covid-19. You’re likely to find many low-code options with different capabilities and development approaches—just like with many other technology categories.
Low-code platforms should help your organization accelerate application development and make it easier to support enhancements. But this needs to be evaluated against the types of applications you want for end-user experiences, data requirements, workflow capabilities, and other factors.
It’s important to consider multiple app dev needs and use cases when researching and testing low-code platforms. Most important, discover what the platform cannot do or cannot do easily and gain a sense of its scope, strengths, and weaknesses. Selecting a low-code approach because it works well for one use case is no guarantee that it’s an optimal standard for ongoing needs.
2. Specify who will develop applications
Some platforms designate themselves as low code, which implies that some coding skills may be required to develop applications. Others market themselves as no code and offer visual tools for constructing user interfaces, workflows, and integrations.
That’s one dimension, but a more important one is to identify who will design, develop, and maintain the applications. Some low-code platforms are tools for technologists and target people with software development skills. Others are citizen development platforms and empower business analysts or subject matter experts to develop and support applications. Some platforms support both options but have different tools and capabilities for each persona.
The target developers should be interested and excited to learn the platform, build applications, and have the time to support ongoing enhancements. Engaging them early in the selection process ensures that they are on board with using the tool in support of business priorities.
3. Research customer happiness and evangelism
It’s hard to get people to talk about platforms that haven’t exceeded expectations, and it’s easy to find hundreds of positive reviews for every technology platform. Some platforms will market their number of applications, customers, and developers; the better ones share their customer satisfaction reports. The bigger, more established, “enterprise-ready” platforms are likely to appear in Gartner Magic Quadrants, Forrester Waves, and other analyst reports.
I seek door number three. I want platforms that have rabid fans. To have a great low-code platform, the company has to excel at delivering fantastic end-user experiences, wow technologists with its capabilities, and prove short- and longer-term value to executives. Some low-code platforms may be subpar at winning over one of these personas, making it difficult to drive repeatable success using their technologies.
4. Define usage requirements and estimate pricing
Low-code platforms have very different business and pricing models. Some have end-user pricing, so you pay more for greater numbers of application users or usage. Other companies price their platforms by development scale, on metrics like the number of applications or development seats. Some offer multiple products that are purchased separately, and most have capability-based pricing tiers.
So, while many offer easy onramps to trials and developing proofs of concept, it’s important to understand the end-state development and production requirements.
Also, don’t fall into the trap of evaluating low-code platforms just on price. Ultimately, these platforms have to enable delightful experiences, development productivity, and robust operational capabilities. If you’re trying to develop a total cost of ownership, then consider all the financial factors.
5. Investigate and prioritize integration requirements
No one can afford to develop low-code applications in silos. Applications need to integrate with enterprise systems, APIs, cloud and data center databases, and third-party data sources. If your organization is developing IoT data pipelines or machine learning models, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to integrate them with low-code platforms.
Just about all platforms offer APIs, but what you can do with them, how well they perform, and how vendors support development teams vary considerably. The last thing you want is to develop low-code applications that require complex integrations that need ongoing maintenance.
One place to start is reviewing IFTTT (If This Then That) platforms and seeing whether they integrate with the low-code platform and what types of actions and triggers they support. Even if you don’t use these platforms in production, they are a good source for reviewing capabilities and implementing integration proofs of concept.
6. Review hosting, devops, and governance options
Low code was once synonymous with SaaS and cloud hosting options, and only a few offered hybrid cloud and data center options. That’s no longer the case, and low-code platforms now compete on hosting flexibilities.
Reviewing devops options is another important consideration. Not all low-code platforms are created equal when it comes to devops capabilities, especially in areas like:
- Versioning applications or integrating with a version control system
- Supporting the development life cycle across dev, test, and other environments
- Enabling an agile development process with connections to tools that manage backlogs and road maps
- Integrating with continuous integration/continuous deployment, continuous testing, or IT service management change management processes
- Enabling data snapshots; mirrors; replications; or extract, transform, load processes to support disaster recovery and data science
Lastly, review the platform’s citizen development governance options if you plan to empower people in business units to build and support applications.
7. Understand compliance and security requirements
The order by which you evaluate platforms is important. Don’t misunderstand that compliance and security are the last or least important concerns. Part of the art and science of assessing platforms is determining what’s a must versus a should and when to evaluate different criteria.
If you’re developing applications that require HIPAA compliance, data lineage capabilities, auditing capabilities, data sovereignty compliance, active directory integrations, hosting constraints, or other non-negotiables, better evaluate these requirements up front.
Then, when you start implementing applications, you’ll want to understand how the low-code platform handles role-based administration, data masking, and other security considerations.
I’ve been using and reviewing low-code and no-code platforms for two decades, and I’m certain they have great potential for most organizations. But platforms differ considerably, so invest the time to research and validate options.