When turning an idea into a marketable product, speed is more important than ever. Along with having a good idea and offering a solid user experience, time is often the main factor that determines whether an app, a customer portal or a similar product will be successful on the market.
A question that often arises is why the IT division and its suppliers need so long to implement even supposedly simple things. For the average project, it is usually necessary to begin by spend at least one or two months on the technical foundations – and that’s the best case scenario. This includes features that the user hardly notices but nevertheless expects, such as a data model, a login function, the IT infrastructure, links to data sources, and mobile compatibility.
That is precisely where low-code platforms come into play; they provide a toolkit for developing solutions in a fast, model-driven way. They also make it possible for specialist staff with no programming skills to play an active part in the development of a software application. Typical, commonly needed functions such as a workflow engine or a login process, but also the infrastructure itself, are available to use from day one of the project.
What is low-code?
Low-code is a toolkit that helps companies to develop software products quickly and easily. Although there are different products on the market, a comprehensive low-code platform will usually be comprised of the following components:
- Visual development tools: Visual drag-and-drop models are used to design data models, processes or interfaces. This means that less technically skilled people can also become actively involved in developing applications and can make smaller changes themselves.
- Application store: A community or marketplace where platform users can find plug-ins, components and integrations or publish their own.
- Full application lifecycle (SDLC) support: Most low-code platforms cover the entire lifecycle, including functions such as business analysis, product management, testing and operations.
Projects three times as fast – is it possible?
Although low-code providers promise a range of improvements, these should be seen with a certain degree of caution. As always, the following rule applies: a low-code toolkit doesn’t remove the need for an experienced team with a clear goal and the right skills; in fact, the team becomes even more important to capitalise on the opportunities presented by fast execution.
The project duration can easily be reduced to a third of the normal estimated time. Some providers promise even bigger efficiency gains. Though this may be possible under optimum conditions, in reality most companies need time to check results, provide feedback and make decisions. What’s more, even with excellent integration tools, connecting to the existing architecture still requires a lot of development and testing work.
- Portfolio analysis for property investors: At the heart of the project lies the vision of translating the client’s expertise into a modern and flexible web application. New ideas are continuously introduced and realised throughout the course of the project. Close collaboration and the availability of a test environment from the start make it possible to get much more done than initially planned.
- Interaction database for active ingredients (regulated software project): An established interaction database of active substances for specialist medical staff is migrated to a modern web application. Here, too, new ideas, improvements and features still flow into the project during development. The resulting web application is state of the art. Used in hospitals, clinics and doctors’ surgeries, it shows that low-code also works in a regulated environment.
- Real prototyping for an insurance company: To assess the feasibility of a new idea, exploit the benefits and convince internal stakeholders of it, a small team creates a functional and interactive web application in a short space of time. While others are still writing concepts and proposals, the team is already validating the idea with various departments and incorporating feedback directly.
Using low-code successfully
What needs to be considered when using low-code?
- A well-planned business case: The feasibility of using low-code must be assessed in a business case. The benefit increases over time and is particularly evident when depicted on a full roadmap. It is also important to think about licensing models, in order to avoid any nasty surprises after the initial productivity euphoria has worn off.
- Fast prototype development and feedback cycles: With low-code, a prototype can be built and a functional version launched in the cloud within just a few days. As a result, feedback cycles are short and decisions can be made quickly. And unlike clickable prototypes, it even uses real data and actually works.
- Good general quality through reuse: Using an established low-code platform offers the added benefit that many mistakes have already been made and corrected. This frees up time and resources to focus on the functionality, the user and customer-specific aspects. A wide range of components from a growing community of third parties are available in the app store. This alone has saved us time and money on several occasions during our projects.
- Transparent agile collaboration: An approach that is already known from agile software development can be continued directly. But thanks to the productivity gain, the business can benefit from even shorter feedback cycles. Due to full platform integration from the idea through to operation, no complex operational handover is needed at the end of a phase.
- The human touch: Low-code platforms offer many advantages. But they are still no substitute for the experience of an architect and a well-oiled team. The ability to understand the business benefits, develop a vision and translate it into usable software remains key. Nevertheless, low-code makes the team faster and allows shortcuts that are more difficult in conventional software development.
- Go-live: With conventional projects, going live can be a painstaking process that is often underestimated. With low-code, we already have one foot in operating mode right from the start. Everything needed for operating the product already exists. This makes going live fast and easy, so we can quickly get back to working on development tasks.
- Last mile: The final 20 percent of a product development project is often characterised by a high degree of personalisation and special technical features. Productivity sinks to a ‘normal’ level at this stage. However, unlike projects with standard software, we never encountered any technical limitations or barriers.
Deciding between custom development and low-code is not always easy and has long-term implications, as the latter means becoming tied to one provider in a similar way to when using standard software. Low-code is very well-suited to creating new things, validating a vision and turning it into reality. Although the operating costs are higher, low-code can be used to create scalable and easily expandable products that don’t require a follow-up solution as soon as the user base starts to grow, thereby reducing initial costs.
Marc Faeh is Senior Business Solution Manager and joined Zuhlke in March 2020. He supports customers in increasing customer loyalty and efficiency through ideas and solutions in the portal and collaboration environment. After an apprenticeship in banking and studies in Business Information Systems, Marc worked six years as a management consultant for a leading global IT services company. His focus was on transformation and business architecture projects in various industries (Telco, Banking, Travel, Card Issuing and Pharma). He then worked for 11 years on customer side as a project manager in the retail industry leading complex business and systems projects in the POS, commerce and payment area.