Complete Introduction to the Low-Code Ecosystem
What low-code means, why it is important, who the audience is, and common use cases
What is low-code?
Here, “low-code” refers to a movement within technology. Let’s start with a simple definition of low-code.
Simply put: A visual tool that replaces some level of writing code
As simple as that definition is, there is a lot of confusion around low-code and what the term means.
Why is the term “low-code” confusing?
Because “low-code” can mean multiple things. Today, it is often used to describe one of the below:
- Visual Tools or WYSIWYG features
The term is often used to describe alternatives for solutions that traditionally require code. Natural language processing and similar technology can fall within this category too.
Software that doesn’t require code to use or create within it. HTML and CSS can be required for styling. In Adalo, for example, you can create simple mobile and web applications without code.
These solutions often require declarative programming and meaningful programming for large parts of any scaled application (often product data, combined customer data, or any meaningful relational information). Wordpress is an example of a widely used low-code solution.
- Enterprise Low-Code
HpaPaaS platforms used by enterprises. These are large, scalable platforms that require significant investment. Mendix is an example of an HpaPaaS platform.
Why has low-code become important?
A key driver behind low-code tools is the growth of e-commerce. Online sales have taken a significant amount of business from in-store sales over the past four years.
“In 2015, e-commerce share of retail sales worldwide stood at 7.4 percent…In 2019, this figure has risen to 13.7 percent, representing $3.43 trillion of the $25.038 trillion value of the retail market in 2019.” — Oblero Study
What does that really mean? People have almost doubled the amount of money they spend online versus in a retail store over the past four years.
The graphic below shows the increase:
Why does low-code exist?
These tools are meant to improve what businesses can accomplish with the people and resources they have today.
Rather, the labels of citizen analyst, citizen data scientist, citizen developer, citizen integrator, etc., refer to people who are not experts in a particular discipline — such as data analysis, data science, software development, systems integration, etc. — but who are able to wield a new generation of tools to accomplish tasks in those disciplines as if they were experts.
But, low-code solutions do not replace developers or data scientists.
These tools enable companies to leverage skills and technology they might not be able to otherwise.
That could be true because the company doesn’t have developers. Maybe it’s too low of a business priority for a developer to work on it, or a company’s current developers don’t have specific skills or training in the type of work that is needed.
Low-code tools are meant for business enablement — not a replacement.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence are examples of how low-code can enable development teams. Many teams don’t have in-house technical talent who have meaningful experience and training in AI or ML.
To help, companies are creating low-code tools focused around developers.
Amazon, for example, has begun focusing on putting machine learning tools in the hands of existing developers and other technical resources. This approach helps companies get out of having to find and staff data scientist teams.
“Among these other innovations, one of the best things we can do is to enable your existing talent to become productive with ML. And, specifically, developer talent and business analyst talent.” — Matt Asay, Principal at AWS.
What are the common use cases for low-code tools?
Low-code tools support many different use cases. Below are some of the more common use cases seen today.
- Customer Service
- Web Experience
- Data Analysis
- Internal Corporate
- Template Code
- Creating Web Applications
- Enterprise Software Development
We will be covering these use cases in more detail later. But before we do, to get more context, let’s discuss who low-code tools are meant to help.
The Low-Code Audience & Market
These are the members of the Do-It-Yourself movement. Maker solutions commonly integrate multiple tools together to build audiences and digital products.
There is also a maker audience for a single application to create web and mobile applications.
Makers also have a vibrant online community, Makerpad being the largest.
The number of freelancers in the United States is projected to reach 100 million by 2027. Freelancers working on projects are able to leverage low-code, templates, platforms, and tools to produce faster.
An example of a solution a freelancer might use is Divjoy, a React codebase generator. Tools like Divjoy help by providing a base for a landing page, forms, authentication, password flow, routing, etc.
Freelancers use tools like these when they:
1) Don’t have experience
2) Need help starting
3) Want to use a template’s design
4) Want to save time
Custom software agencies in the United States employ approximately 1 million people, with revenues over 155 billion. Agencies are competitive and feel pressure to pull down estimates and costs. Low-code tools are positioning themselves to help with that.
In a recent conversation we had, Philip, a co-founder from Generato, illustrates how these companies see themselves: “In 2 years, Generato will be one central hub for software development teams to kick-start any project in no time.”
A common theme among these companies is the combination of providing speed and flexibility. Both are essential to an agency’s business model.
An agency’s profitability is basically hourly rate x sold hours - cost. When an agency reduces cost, it can be used to either earn more of a profit or make a lower bid on the project (likely a combination). Agencies require flexibility because they are bidding on a wide variety of projects and work.
Agencies use tools like these when they:
1) Want to save time and cost
2) Increase profitability
3) Innovate using lean principles
4) Create rapid prototypes
5) Enable marketing departments
Small Business & Startups
Low-code provides small businesses and startups with capabilities they would never be able to afford otherwise. That could be a professional-looking web presence, custom chatbots, a customer portal, and an online store all run without code.
For example, a small business might not be able to afford a full-time data scientist. So a small business might not be able to use machine learning to predict potential customer behavior from a data set.
Obviously AI is an example of a low-code solution that a startup or small business might want to use. They want to bring machine learning tools to a non-technical audience — a trend we will likely see continue.
When I became VP of Operations at Vanick Digital, one of the largest challenges we had was the operational support cost of our software.
Most of our infrastructure was on-premise, not cloud. That meant our teams had to learn how to support these technologies, and then they were often first responders to incidents.
By migrating almost all of our tools, infrastructure, and platforms to cloud solutions, we were able to significantly reduce our operations cost while increasing our speed and capabilities.
Moving to a mix of SaaS, IaaS, and PaaS helped our developers worry less about infrastructure and operations.
They could focus on what they loved — writing code instead of supporting it. In the same way, low-code technologies can help teams worry about less.
Small Businesses and Startups use tools like these when they:
1) Want operational efficiencies
2) Increase capabilities
3) Innovate using lean principles
4) Leverage skills they don’t have internally
5) Increase profitability
Any company in this category has the challenge of competing with enterprise companies. In other words, how do these companies compete with Google, Facebook, etc.? Can’t one of these companies just out-muscle anyone?
So how did Jotform survive?
“First and foremost, smaller companies are more nimble than established competitors, as a result of a leaner management structure, fewer fixed costs or even a leaner codebase for tech companies . . .” By listening to customers of all shapes and sizes and being ready to rapidly iterate, midsize companies can stay ahead of market forces.”
A constant challenge for midsize companies is internal people aren’t available for innovation. Teams are busy managing their own pipelines and growth, and they don’t have the available time to innovate.
Companies like SLINGR are seeing a market for lower-cost development and the need to outsource innovation. In practice, that often looks like creating proof of concepts and idea testing labs. What makes SLINGR unique is using low-code to save their clients money.
Midsize Companies use tools like these when they:
1) Spread business enablement
2) Iterate quickly on new lines of business
3) Create rapid prototypes or products
4) Increase the impact of employees
5) Want to outsource the problem
Any developer who has worked for a marketing team knows you are never fast enough. Marketers want things immediately — even when imperfect.
That is the ideal use case for low-code solutions.
Low-code tools give marketers the ability to iterate quickly, often completely on their own without development resources.
Successful marketing requires constant experimentation.
And low-code tools can help provide that within a realistic budget. For example, in Unbounce, a marketer could create their own landing pages without waiting on a developer.
This could allow them to be constantly performing A/B tests — instead of relying on an outside person or team.
Marketers use tools like these when they:
1) Need empowerment and speed
2) Value experimentation over perfection
3) Have tension with their IT departments
As technologies become increasingly specialized, low-code helps teams leverage technologies they don’t have experience in or the time to scale. For example, in my last role as VP of Operations at Vanick Digital we automated or outsourced as much as we could within operations.
The value my company provided to clients was writing code, not manually checking on servers or services. Because of that, we embraced contracts, tools, and philosophies that outsourced as much of that as possible.
Software teams use tools like these when they:
1) Focus on where they provide the most value
2) Create prototypes
3) Have resources like BAs and PMs to leverage these tools
4) Generate operational improvements
5) Have repeatable work
6) Want to visualize DevOps
With a massive amount of employees, enterprise companies want to leverage their collective skills as much as possible. Small efficiencies can create massive gains at their size.
Enterprise Companies use tools like these when they:
1) Decentralize work or have cross-functional teams
2) Have an innovation lab or innovation team
3) Have significant business process management needs
4) Want to increase marketing’s independence from IT
Use Cases of Low-Code with Examples
1. Integration / Automation
These tools automate actions and connect web applications. Workflow automation is one of the more mature areas of low-code technologies.
For example, a user may use Zapier to push leads from a form on their website to their marketing platform.
These tools help save time by performing basic tasks for you.
2. Web experience
These create meaningful web experiences with minimal code.
These tools include content management systems, landing page creators, bots — anything that a user might reasonably interact within a digital experience.
Marketers make up a significant amount of this audience. Websites on average make up 11.7% of marketing’s entire annual budget spend.
3. Customer Service
Ten years ago, software focused on helping small teams manage inbound customer questions and needs. Now technologies allow and automate that process — but they also have created tons of self-service options.
Tools like Zendesk give users the capabilities of creating a full customer support system with portal and self-management tools without writing a line of code.
Other tools like Landbot let companies create self-service bots without code.
These tools can be integrated with your web experience platforms, e-commerce, and more to provide a combined customer experience.
These platforms enable processes to sell, ship, and manage products online. 95% of all purchases are projected to be made online by 2040.
Shopify is one of the popular E-Commerce platforms. It allows users to create a full e-commerce experience without code.
These platforms will have to work to drive value outside of Amazon — which currently drives approximately 50% of the e-commerce market.
5. Data analysis
Today, leveraging machine learning is outside the realm of the average person. Nirman Dave, CEO of Obviously AI, co-founded his startup to help put machine learning in everyday hands.
“Aside from our product, our company wants to increase inclusiveness and delete ML bias by putting data science in the hands of everyone and not just a few technical engineers in your company.” — Nirman Dave
Obviously AI lets you use natural language to analyze and make predictions.
Developers need low-code data science as well. Companies like Yellowfin make solutions for developers.
A company that doesn’t have data scientists might not have the skills or time to build advanced analytics within their own application. In that case, a tool like Yellowfin can be used to embed a data analytics solution within an existing application, instead of custom writing one.
Visual tools help DevOps as both information radiators and as team amplifiers. Today, you can use visual tools to manage, monitor, and promote builds across environments. In the past, that would have required code, a command line interface, etc.
These tools can allow software development teams to move quickly. For example, when I was a Project Manager, my company created a custom web application to create and manage our AWS instances.
We were able to deploy and manage our builds in a QA instance whenever we needed one — without waiting on our operations team. At the time, this was remarkable (almost seven years ago).
There is a large future market for tools that tap into empowering Program Managers, Product Managers, and Business Analysts.
7. Internal corporate
Most companies have thousands of spreadsheets sent via email. They are hard to manage, versioning is difficult, and they are not available for an api or integration.
Microsoft has a solution potentially free to users who have an O365 license. PowerApps has been consistently ranked high as a low-code platform and is excellent for helping create and manage spreadsheet-like use cases.
For example, creating a simple application for truck inspectors (below pic):
Today, these create very simple applications. They are not mature enough to create enterprise-grade production software.
8. Template Code / Partial web application
Templates have been around forever.
What is new are tools like Divjoy.
Divjoy is a React Codebase Generator that functions like a low-code template generator. A developer selects the pages, components, and styles they want. The generator then exports the code generated for those settings.
Tools like Divjoy will become more commonplace.
They help remove unnecessary details from developers while using standards like Material Design or others.
Template Code examples: Divjoy
9. Standard web application
This is one of the more immature areas of low-code. Today, no low-code application can build web applications that compare to custom code at scale.
This might never change. With simplicity comes compromises.
That doesn’t mean compromises are better or worse. It means you should understand the limitations of the platform you are using, like any platform choice.
Some solutions exist, like Adalo (see below). But these solutions have a long way to go. However, this is a new market and will rapidly improve.
Solutions like Adalo are excellent for makers, but they are not meant for scale just yet. This is going to change in the next few years as these platforms are increasingly adopted and tested.
10. Enterprise Software Development
This is the “proper” use of low-code, also referred to as aPaaS, HpaPaaS platforms, and “Enterprise Low Code Application Platforms” by Gartner.
These are not just pieces of software; they are an entire cloud technology. The below infographic helps provide context:
These solutions require heavy investment but can provide an enterprise with great benefits. They allow large companies to leverage more of their employees as creators, empower departments, and better standardize data intake and management.
The Low-Code industry needs more evangelism
There is very little cross-industry evangelism in low-code. In other words, there are a lot of voices with very little self-organization.
Two key problems — confusion across the ecosystem and bias from some technologists — are largely due to rapid growth and an immature market.
Low-code conversations with developers contain a lot of passion — and rightly so. There is a common theme that low-code “is here for developers’ jobs.”
Low-code solutions aren’t about to take any developer jobs.
Part of evangelism should be the creation of processes and playbooks to work within development teams. These solutions will help people who are not developers make meaningful contributions to development teams.
Instead of being replaced, developers will be able to focus on high-value items.