No-code app builders are having a bit of a moment. There is a big buzz around the no-code movement and some serious claims are being made. A few commentators seem to think no-code will replace traditional development processes. Others consider the whole thing a bit of a gimmick.
In this article, we explain what no-code app builders are, how they work and why many people are excited about them. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the no-code approach and give you our expert opinion on what role these app builders will play in the app development industry.
What are no-code app builders?
No-code app builders do exactly what the name suggests. They enable you to develop apps without using (or learning) any programming code. Instead, they substitute code for visual app-building mechanisms and tools. These include drag-and-drop interfaces and configuration wizards.
Proponents of no-code app builders are pretty big on the idea of citizen developers. They argue that no-code platforms open up the world of app building to a wider range of designers and developers, as extensive training and investment in knowledge acquisition is not necessary.
Citizen developers are not app specialists or experts. They are marketers, entrepreneurs, data analysts, HR managers, and students. They are anyone and everyone. No-code app builders aim to make it so that you do not need any development know-how to create an app.
This works in some cases. And not in others.
What is the difference between no-code and coded apps?
We could talk for hours about the many differences between no-code and coded apps. They are very different beasts. But, to make things simple, we want to focus on a fundamental distinction that cuts right to the heart of the issue.
Coded apps take an imperative approach. No-code apps adopt a declarative approach.
With the imperative approach, developers define what each task is and how the app executes that task.
With the declarative approach, no-code app builders only define the what. You have much more limited control over how the app handles, processes and completes the task. The platform determines how it executes tasks and achieves your goals.
At first, this distinction may seem rather subtle. But it has a significant impact on what you can achieve with either approach. While the declarative approach is follow-the-instructions app building, the imperative approach allows for complete freedom of expression.
What are low-code apps?
Before we go any further and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of no-code app-building platforms, we want to dedicate a few words to low-code apps.
Low-code apps sit somewhere between traditional coded apps and no-code apps. If we are 100% honest, they are probably a little more towards the no-code end of things. Low-code apps still require some coding expertise. However, they also make the most of no-code features to minimise the amount of coding required.
This means complete newcomers to app development tend not to opt for low-code apps. They are either a stepping stone for developers on their way to improving their coding skills or a handy tool for experienced developers who benefit from a quick shortcut.
Why might a developer want to use a shortcut?
Low-code apps can be a great way to speed up certain development processes or create simple apps that do not require complex features or functions. Though allowing for slightly more freedom than no-code apps, low-code apps still place strict limitations on what you can achieve. This means they are well-suited to some tasks but not others.
More on that later.
Why is there a bit of a buzz around no-code apps?
There can be no argument that no-code app builders are generating an industry buzz. As it becomes increasingly clear that apps are the future of digital software delivery, more businesses are releasing no-code app builder platforms and hyping them as the next big thing.
At The Distance, we think there is a place for no-code app builders in the development ecosystem. They can be really valuable tools.
In specific situations.
We also know that no-code app builders are no replacement for bespoke app development. Particularly if you value high-quality, complex products that meet specific business needs.
Much of the buzz surrounding the no-code movement focuses on accessibility and citizen developers. It argues that technology should make things more accessible, rather than acting as a barrier to entry.
In some ways, we agree. The accessibility of technology is an important consideration. But so is the ability and freedom to do extraordinarily complex and exciting things with technology.
No-code vs code – what does the future hold?
Within app development, there is a place for accessibility and simplicity and a place for expertise, experience and complexity. Simplicity is fantastic when all you need is a basic product. In-depth expertise is the only option if you require something more powerful and rewarding.
No-code platforms will also streamline certain work processes and enable businesses and teams to create rudimentary apps at a relatively low cost and on a short timescale.
Coding is demanding, challenging and difficult to learn. That’s because the best apps are not easy to build. Like any high-value product, they depend on considerable skill, insight and expertise. This expertise cannot be replicated by no-code apps.
Going forwards, both no-code platforms and traditional, code-based development processes will thrive. The two approaches set out to achieve different things. No-code is the quick, easy and cost-efficient approach that makes sense when you need a basic app. Code-based apps are versatile, high-quality and purpose-built solutions for businesses that demand excellence.
With this in mind, we are going to examine specific instances in which no-code app builders excel, followed by situations where coding is advantageous.
No-code app builder strengths
Broadly speaking, no-code is useful when you prioritise accessibility, low-cost development and speed. So let’s look at these three strengths in greater depth.
One of no-code’s biggest selling points is that it ensures anyone and everyone can make an app (we do not necessarily agree with this point, but we will tackle that later). Accessibility is an important concept in the digital sphere. And we want to see as many people as possible engaging with digital technology and using widely available tools to create applications they want and need.
No-code allows employees to create innovative solutions to their business problems in a fairly straightforward way. A lot more people are going to give app building a go as a result.
- Low-cost development
Much of the cost of developing high-quality, bespoke apps is associated with the time and expertise required to build them. Coding is a skill the market deems valuable. And applying that skill in the right way takes time.
No-code app builders minimise development costs by eliminating these factors from the app development process. Using them does not require a huge amount of technical skill and is usually quick and straightforward.
Essentially, it boils down to the age-old question of cost vs quality. Which do you value more? How willing are you to compromise one to prioritise the other?
There are certain situations in which low-cost no-code apps are a better choice. For instance, apps that facilitate data sharing in small teams. If you are sick of relying on inaccurate and complicated spreadsheets, a basic data-collection and analysis app makes sense.
It does not need to do anything flashy. Just share information and condense data into a graph or other visual representation. With this in mind, no-code apps may become increasingly common amongst organisations looking to automate low level business processes.
With a bit of practice, no-code app building can be very quick. The drag-and-drop interface enables app builders to quickly and efficiently build simple apps, reducing development time and getting the product to market sooner.
This is fantastic news for organisations that require a low-complexity app at short notice. However, it also benefits developers in other ways.
For instance, over the coming years, no-code app building may play a bigger role in prototyping. If you want to demonstrate your basic concept to investors but do not want to invest significant time or money doing so, no-code would be the way to go.
So, we could see code-based developers using no-code prototypes more in the future.
No-code app builder weaknesses
Having examined the strengths of no-code, let’s turn to its four main weaknesses.
- A reductionist approach to app development
The no-code movement markets itself on accessibility. It argues that the only obstacle to designing and developing great apps is the ability to code.
We think this is patently false.
When we design apps, coding is just part of the process. So much more goes into creating a fantastic app. Designers and developers must understand how users interact with different devices, what engages them, how they move through the menu system, where they look and how screen layout affects navigation.
We think about the impact images and fonts will have on usability. How we can ensure accessibility for a diverse range of users. How we will maintain and improve the app over an extended period.
We have conversations about how best to publicise the app and generate feedback and reviews. We ensure we understand how the app will fit into a company’s wider digital ecosystem. We leverage more than a decade of experience and expertise.
That is what you get with bespoke, coded apps. And what no-code app platforms cannot provide.
To say app building entails nothing more than coding is a reductionist approach. And adopting that approach will result in substandard apps.
- Putting a ceiling on innovation
When you use no-code app builders, there are strict limitations on what you can do and no way around them. On the other hand, coding encourages and rewards experimentation and innovation. It pushes you to find fresh solutions to problems. To discover the most elegant and efficient way to achieve your goals.
Of course, the nature of programming languages also places limitations on coding. But those limitations are far less restrictive.
If no-code app building is the equivalent of sitting down with a paint-by-numbers book and three colouring pencils, coding is like approaching a large, blank canvas with an extensive colour palette and formal artistic training.
All this is to say that, by its very nature, no-code app building limits what you can achieve. The platform establishes the boundaries of what is possible. And you work within that. You draw on its library of features, components and templates and do the best you can.
- Is it really no-code?
In many cases, no-code is a bit of a misnomer. Only the simplest of apps will require no coding at all. Many will be predominantly built using a no-code approach and then enhanced or adapted using code.
This is not a problem. In some ways, it is a strength. The ability to mix and match no-code and coding approaches may prove wonderfully valuable in the future.
However, it does pose questions about how accessible no-code app builders are. And the extent to which “citizen developers” will embrace no-code app builders. Is the term citizen developer just an exceptionally savvy piece of marketing? Will no-code actually open the development world to people with no previous coding or development experience?
- Lacking integrations
Developing through a third-party platform has its downsides. With no-code, one of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of integrations. While you can usually connect to some third-party systems, your options are limited and determined by the platform provider.
This is a particularly significant issue if you need to pull and push data to and from specialist solutions. You may be alright if everything is contained within an Excel spreadsheet (or another extremely popular platform). But integrating your no-code app with anything other than the big names in data management may prove tricky.
Here at The Distance, we are in no doubt that no-code app builders are useful tools in specific situations. But we also have the experience and expertise to know that the no-code approach will not supplant traditional coding anytime soon. In certain cases we highly recommend our clients use no-code solutions to test their ideas. When a bespoke solution is cost prohibitive or you need help proving or developing your model, for instance.
The Core is our low-code solution to app development. It provides us with the tools to develop bespoke apps using a series of components and modules to ensure a consistent level of quality and reduce the time it takes to build standard features. As this technology is our own Intellectual Property (IP) we have full control over it and can completely tailor it to meet our client demands, unlike third party solutions.
Digital apps are at the forefront of service delivery for a significant number of businesses. In most instances, these businesses require bespoke apps that fulfil specific needs and guarantee a world-class user experience.
An app that lacks key features and functions, or frustrates the user through poor design, is likely to lose you customers.
There is a place for no-code in the development ecosystem. And we believe these app platforms will improve with time. However, for companies invested in delivering their customers the best, bespoke, coded apps continue to reign supreme.
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