New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications

Growth In Customer-Facing Applications Drives Development Teams Away From Coding

Customers increasingly interact with products and services, as well as marketing, sales, and service teams through software. The short schedules and rapid change cycles required to develop these applications often bust development life cycles and platforms for coding. Thus, some firms seek quicker alternatives to traditional programming platforms.

Some Switch To Low-Code Platforms For Their Customer-Facing Apps

Low-code platforms are rising as an alternative for developing customer-facing apps. Initially targeted at speeding all projects, these platforms are finding traction in the age of the customer’s heightened priority for customer experience software. Clients have a wide range of choices among these platforms, almost all of them from small vendors.

Firms Often Adopt Fast Delivery Practices Along With Low-Code Platforms

Customers adopting low-code platforms also change their practices, methods, and delivery metrics. Some value these practice changes as much as the low-code platforms that support them. Key is the ability to test business ideas with working code within days or weeks, funding attuned to uncertainty, and metrics emphasizing quality of engagement.

Why Read This Report

Hand-coding is too slow to develop and deliver many of the applications that companies use to win, serve, and retain customers. Some firms are turning to new, “low-code” application platforms that accelerate app delivery by dramatically reducing the amount of hand-coding required. Faster delivery is the primary benefit of these application platforms; they also help firms respond more quickly to customer feedback after initial software releases and provision mobile and multichannel apps. Usage of low-code platforms is gaining momentum for customer-facing applications. This report analyzes the requirements, products, and potential benefits driving this trend, as well as the implications for software delivery methods, governance, and cultures.

Forrester conducted 22 in-depth interviews during the first four months of 2014 with customers using low-code platforms to deliver systems of engagement.

Customer-Facing Applications Demand New App-Delivery Thinking

Customer-facing applications are now the top technology priority in many enterprises. Customers or sales reps and other agents use these applications to interact with products and services, as well as with marketing, sales and service employees, and partners.1 Companies are investing in these software projects principally to enrich customer interactions, but they also drive innovations in customer service, brand connection, products, and business models.2

As software projects, customer-facing applications challenge all the norms of enterprise software development and solution architecture. Delivery speed is the biggest challenge, but in formulating strategies for customer-facing applications, application development and delivery (AD&D) leaders tackle four challenges:

  1. Run projects at digital clock speed — and continuously. In the age of the customer, everything runs as quickly as customers and markets — and software delivery must keep up. To make software delivery as nimble as their customers’ imaginations, application delivery leaders must slash project schedules to weeks for initial delivery and days for updates and fixes. Doing so requires completely different software structures, project methods, and team organizations.
  2. Create software that is immediately intuitive. Waze, Hipmunk, Fly Delta (the Delta Airlines app), and other consumer mobile apps reset the definition of intuitive software to mean “no training required to be immediately useful.” All customer-facing applications — even those used by employees — must meet this standard.
  3. Transition application delivery methods to fit customer engagement models. Systems of engagement extend back-end applications and systems of record to make it easier for customers to engage with a company. Many teams are applying Agile methods to coding frameworks like Spring Framework and .NET to deliver systems of engagement applications. But making frequent updates and module deployments requires continuous integration methods that go beyond Agile.
  4. Find platforms that fit customer-engagement realities. Many development teams are questioning the role Java, .NET, and other coding platforms should play in their customerfacing systems. The control that coding provides comes at the cost of time. Application development platforms that rely on faster development techniques — visual development, automatic configuration and deployment, or user interface transcoding — can speed delivery compared with coding. We call these products low-code platforms and define them as:

A UK-based insurance firm typifies the situation many enterprises face. The firm’s software development regime treated every project as a strategic system requiring fully articulated requirements and years of development work. The approach quashed promising new ideas because they had either fuzzy requirements or looked like big projects — or both. Result: The firm was falling behind its competitors. “We had no way to improve our business model quickly and at a low cost.” (IT innovation director, UK insurance carrier)

To better understand how firms are meeting these new challenges, we interviewed 23 enterprise development leaders to determine how they are meeting these four key challenges. We zeroed in on organizations that decided to adopt low-code platforms to deliver customer-facing applications. Here is what we learned about why and how these organizations adopted new platforms, and introduced big changes to their established methods, to produce customer-facing software faster and better.

Low-Code Platforms Deliver At Digital Clock Speed

If hand-coding can’t keep pace with the speed of change that customers and customer-facing employees demand, what are the alternatives? Some enterprises cope by outsourcing the challenge. Some look to packaged applications, some to specialized middleware. None of these alternatives address the problem head-on — how can application delivery teams speed up their useful output?

A promising approach is to use low-code platforms — an emerging category that supports rapid assembly of customer-facing applications, requiring minimal hand-coding and enabling productive new development practices.

Low-Code Platforms Lower The Barriers Between Requirements And Delivery

Low-code platforms speed up development by allowing AD&D teams to eliminate barriers to customer participation in projects, as well as handoffs between phases of projects. But there’s more; these platforms also:

  • Slash the hand-coding needed to deliver applications. Low-code platforms minimize handcoding and speed up delivery by providing visual tools for quick definition and assembly of user experiences and forms, rapid build out of multistage workflows, and easily configured data models that eliminate common data integration headaches. Nearly all of the companies we interviewed confirmed that low-code platforms allow them to succeed with less-skilled developers. However, they were also all quick to point out that some hand-coding was still required to deploy the application to production — but far less hand-coding than their previous practices.
  • Provide a proving ground for testing and experimenting with new ideas. Business leaders trying to move rapidly on new ideas to boost revenue and improve competitiveness often get bogged down by rigid and siloed development approaches. Low-code platforms allow business leaders to experiment with new product and service ideas by merging requirements, design, development, and deployment into a single platform. This sandbox approach allows one- or two-person teams to compose new apps and quickly gain feedback from customers, employees, and partners.

“The platform allowed us to trial ideas through a test-and-learn approach. And it wasn’t just a trial system, it allowed us to experiment and then continue building out the app [toward production] as needed.” (IT innovation director, European Union [EU] insurance carrier)

  • Address all customer channels, including mobile. Customers using the low-code application platforms primarily focused on apps for the web channel. But these platforms support responsive design and mobile-ready functionality that makes it as easy as pushing a button to extend the app to work across other channels, including tablets and smartphones (see Figure 1). In some instances, these platforms provide offline support for apps when used on mobile devices for areas with limited or no cell coverage.

“After building out our first few apps, we were able to extend these apps out to mobile without any additional work. Our team did not need to learn anything else or use any mobile development kits to refactor forms, tasks, or interfaces.” (Director of information technology, North American energy company)

  • Provide a single control point for configuration, delivery, and maintenance of apps. Lowcode platforms provide a unified and centralized environment for configuration management, role-based access, authentication, and repository control of apps and configuration components. All key players in software delivery — enterprise architects, security experts, IT operations, and business experts — can add their input to the configuration and management of the platform.

“The tool fit the purpose of the business guys and marketing. Their teams were able to design forms and workflows without knowing anything about the back end.” (Marketing technology lead, Canadian government agency)

First Movers Are Taking Established Categories In A New Direction

Low-code platforms are a converging category, not a new one. Most vendors of these products established their technologies with internal-facing applications. Customer-facing applications are quickly becoming a popular new use case for these platforms because these types of applications demand rapid delivery and evolution.

New Platforms Mean New Culture, Practices, And Design Approaches

The shift to low code is not just about software development platforms. Our interviews with AD&D teams adopting these platforms also uncovered a shift in methods, practices, and approaches for application development and delivery. In some cases the shift to new methods and practices was intentional, while in other cases the shift was more of a subtle side effect that resulted from putting the platform in place.

“As much as the speed of development, we found that the real value of the platform was in the fact that we could quickly prove a project’s value. Under traditional development, that project would still be on our agenda now.” (Director of IT innovation, UK insurance carrier)

Establish Methods, Life Cycles, And Cultural Norms For Customer-Facing Systems

Which new methods will help development teams meet the challenge of customer-facing applications? Our research suggests Agile’s core concepts (close connection to the business, incremental delivery, minimum viable product) are table stakes in this world. In order to accelerate development for customer-facing apps, AD&D teams must also (see Figure 5):

  • Embrace new test-and-learn methods for software development. In this approach, an AD&D team takes between one and four weeks to create a “minimum viable product” based on a small number of requirements, and then live-tests that software with the intended audience, gathers feedback, and either refines or starts over. Test-and-learn is attractive because it produces software based on real customer feedback, rather than on guesses at requirements that are usually wrong anyway.
  • Introduce project-funding models that allow for uncertainty. Traditional investment models prioritize projects that have well-defined requirements and features before beginning development. These models emphasize the “D” in R&D. However, since customer-facing apps tend to start from fledgling ideas, they also come with a high degree of uncertainty about requirements and critical features. This means teams need to get comfortable with funding experiments that might not succeed but that provide a way to quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work for customers. This model emphasizes the “R” in R&D.
  • Track metrics that prioritize engagement over automation. The success of internal-facing applications and processes take into account increased productivity, standardization, and quality. However, the success of customer-facing apps relies on the customer’s perception of how useful, usable, and desirable an app is for completing given tasks. This means teams will need to track customer-centric metrics that focus on convenience, engagement, and advocacy. For low-code scenarios, these metrics help teams quickly evaluate whether they’re moving in the right direction or need to pivot to better align with customer needs.
  • Define nimble conventions and architectural practices — after the initial wins. Teams that have worked with low-code approaches for two or more years advise establishment of development conventions (governing usage of platform services, size of reusable components, etc.) and architectural design practices and norms. But not too soon. First, give development teams freedom to prove they can move and shake in the world of customer-facing apps. Then start to normalize and standardize projects and practices — but never in a way that slows teams down.

Four Major Practice Changes Accompany Low-Code Platforms

A Customer-Driven Ethos In Development Will Spread Across Tech Management

Each of these new methods and metrics helps to drive a broader cultural shift not just in application development and delivery organizations, but also across enterprise technology management. Every AD&D leader we interviewed made this point.

  • What’s out: Cultures that reward specialization, top-down delivery processes, system integrity above all, and measures of success only technical professionals can understand.
  • What’s in: Cultures that reward learning and experimentation, self-organizing teams, innovation and fast time-to-market, and metrics reflecting business outcomes.

Rebalance Your Development And Delivery For Customer Apps

Our customer research and client inquiries remind us daily that the fast pace of business places enterprise application development technology and methods under great strain. Customer-facing applications pose the most difficult challenges. AD&D teams urgently need to change to address these project needs, as well as to readjust the balance in their application delivery strategies between innovation and integrity, and between hand-coding and low-code tools.

Tackle three initiatives:

  • Open your platform portfolio to address customer-facing applications. Which new platforms will allow your teams to respond faster to requests for new customerfacing software? Which platforms are best suited to the customer-facing scenarios your organization must deliver — and for new opportunities? Low-code platforms are worthy of consideration for many organizations. If not low-code platforms, what optimizations to hand-coding approaches can remove huge chunks of time from projects, as well as support the experimentation and feedback loops that customer-facing applications demand?
  • Realize that Agile is necessary but not sufficient for rapid delivery. In the era of empowered customers, AD&D teams need to look beyond Agile methods to cut time-to-market. While use of popular Agile methods like Scrum encourage teams to develop smaller deliverables more frequently, those methods alone will not enable the experimentation and close business connections required of customer-facing applications. Thus, embrace test-and-learn approaches, responsive design, and continuous deployment in addition to Agile methods.
  • Use your scenarios to drive platform selections. Each of the low-code platforms comes from a background in a certain type of application. If your customer-facing apps require deep process management functionality, general-purpose and content-centric platforms will likely fall short. A key question will be whether or not your firm needs multiple low code platforms to satisfy all of its needs.