Innovation seems to be a word that is vastly overused in today’s world. Everywhere you look you’ll see some reference towards it.

In-fact just this week I saw an advert for an innovative burger recipe. Now, I don’t have anything against the burger industry, but this recipe was neither innovative nor tasty. But I’ll save my “misuse of words” rant for another day.

Instead I want to talk to you about the role of low-code development platforms (LCDPs) in the innovation and transformation process. And I want to do it from the view of a Strategic designer and innovator, not a developer (could no longer do that if I tried – it’s been many many moons since my front-end development days).

Disclaimer: I have had a few months playing around with the OutSystems platform, but much less time has been spent on Mendix, Wavemaker, Kony and other protagonists in the market. So this may result in OutSystem-led examples (but I’ll try to be fair). In my limited usage some of my technical claims will be stated from my own personal experiences but there may be better ways to do things on each platform – happy to be proven wrong and pointed in the right direction!

 

What is a Low-Code Development Platform? 

Simply put, low-code development platforms allow you to create mobile and web apps through graphical user interfaces (utilising visual development environments) and configuration instead of traditional programming and development.

 

The Innovation Criteria: 

The perennial cynic in me had doubts when I first sat down with OutSystems. I roughly knew what it did, but at this point I didn’t know its capabilities, nor did I believe it was the right tool for my needs.

I had a number of predetermined criteria I wanted from the platform, namely:

1. Speed:

It was not only the speed of developing an app that was impressive on the LCDPs, but the speed of experimentation. By reusing functionalities from one app to another I was able to experiment with a much higher number of ‘alternatives’. To put this into perspective, during the design process my team and I normally reduce the number of solutions to a particular problem to three potential ideas we believe can work. One of these will then be chosen and tested with a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launched. From the experiment results, the product is normally either pivoted and tested with future iterations, or launched and scaled, but with functionalities added and tested as the audience grows.

However, with a LCDP on board – with their drag-and-drop development environments – we will be able to launch more alternatives, reusing functionalities and modules across applications and all without adding further resources to the team.

This will allow us to not only compare alternatives at an early stage to see which should be scaled, but alternatively we can launch more solutions targeting different audience segments or even potentially simultaneously launch solutions to adjacent problems. 

2. UX & UI:

My concern about this was freedom to build what we wanted to at speed, rather than a template solution. With OutSystems I could use a Vanilla template and build exactly what I wanted to, even incorporating my own CSS code, or even edit the code produced by OutSystems. We were able to use their simplistic drag-and-drop template approach, utilise our own UI code, or mix the two. By being able to easily reuse UI elements developers felt more confident that they were producing work inline with brand objectives, which can help to increase consistency and define an organisation’s design language. With most of the evaluated platforms we were able to build complete apps for testing without the need for any code.

The biggest advantage in this space for an innovation project is the seamless move from prototype to production.

Box ticked.

[I have not at this moment in time tried to build non-template apps in Mendix, Kony or Wavemaker] 

3. Analytics/insights:

Both OutSystems and Mendix allow you to utilise analytics and user feedback across the entire application journey, once again accelerating your ability to iterate. The analytics are built in for both and are very easy to access, but user feedback with Mendix will require you to download an app from the Mendix app store, and is built directly into the OutSystems platform (just remember to turn it on!). The images below show various methods of these platforms to gather user feedback.

 

4. Global Collaboration:

With a team sparsely spread over 7 countries and 3 continents, with their differing market knowledge of utmost importance, global collaboration is a key driver when evaluating a new innovation tool. Once again the LCDPs did not let me down. Team members building solutions for different markets are able to utilise modules produced within different markets and add their own customisations to increase relevancy for their market audience. For developers working on the same module, we are able to ‘compare and merge’, detect and resolve conflicts, as well as managing versions. We are also able to add governance that will state roles and responsibilities, whilst reducing risk of unauthorised changes.

The ability to plan sprints within the platform is also a very useful tool to keep your team members focused, and with both Mendix and OutSystems this is a tool that will need to be downloaded from their respective app stores (Mendix App Store and The Forge for OutSystems).

 

To Be Or Not To Be:

First and foremost, I’d argue that these platforms may not be the right solution for everyone.

The costs seem prohibitively expensive, especially for SMEs and Start-ups, and if this is the case I would recommend that you do a detailed calculation. Discover the true cost of the system (as I learnt the advertised prices on the websites aren’t necessarily correct once your exact needs are calculated), and once you have the price do a little scenario modelling.

Financially how much would it cost you to move to launch with OutSytems or Mendix, and how much would the same process cost with your development team, do you need to expand said team or do you even have one? Yes, I know this is financial scenario modelling rather than just scenario modelling but I’m getting there, promise. The management accounting nerd inside of me would also tell you to add the fixed costs involved (but I won’t let him say more than that today). 

Next consider the opportunity costs. This is where many companies and individuals I have spoken to fail to fairly consider the best route forward for them, regardless of whether they are evaluating a platform, considering a product launch or transforming their value chain.

So other than the financial costs, what else do you have to consider? Time. This is the most obvious opportunity cost. What else could your development team be doing if they worked off shorter development cycles? How much are you spending in agency fees? How much quicker could you take a product to market? Add or remove functionalities? Why is any of this important? Well, we live in a rapidly changing world, where consumers have shorter attentions spans than ever before (that’s why I applaud anyone that has made it this far in this post- thanks). This means that building an audience is key to business success, and by losing time, could you be giving a competitor the impetus in the market? Unless you’re a true disruptor with an idea no one saw coming, then the answer is that losing time means you’re not building your audience, or getting the feedback required to know where and how to pivot your product. These insights are crucial to your innovation efforts.

If after these simple exercises, the answer is still “it’s not for us” then it may honestly not be the best solution for you to grow your business. To highlight this, lets talk about some of the ‘against’ opportunity costs. If you don’t have an OutSystems or Mendix developer as part of your team, you have to consider the learning phase – how long will this take? What happens when your trained LCDP expert leaves? Is there a training cost involved? Most of the providers offer some form of online training. OutSystems have a particularly well structured training platform available online, utilising videos, literature, training exercises and an online community.  But there is a timeframe involved. For example, the Web Developer course is a 32 -hour course, and as a business you have to ask yourself if you can afford to pay to retrain a team member or multiple team members as they study for a week towards this. Once again, great if you are in a large enterprise with a fixed employee training budget or an established team of developers, but not so much for a SME or an innovation agency. However, it’s also crucial to remember that I’m coming at this from a Strategist’s viewpoint, and believe that developers will be able to become familiar with the platforms at a much quicker pace.

However, I’m going to give them all one pretty big flaw during my admittedly limited time of using LCDPs. Going back to the financial cost. For an enterprise-level adoption and roll-out, they are fantastic, and if your company decides to use OutSystems, Mendix or Kony for app development, then as a strategic designer or innovator, you will be able to take advantage of the benefits. However, if you are looking at a low-code development platform purely for collaborative innovation purposes but no launch on the chosen platform, it can turn into an expensive tool, where the benefits mentioned above still exist, but will probably be outweighed by costs.

 

In Short:

There are many pros and few cons for innovation – for once matching the marketing boasts on their websites. I’m not here to tell you which is the better system to use (the disclaimer above should highlight that I’m in no position to do that fairly). What I am here to say is the benefits of low-code development vastly out-weigh any of the downsides, and at present is an underutilised tool in the innovation space.

Whether your strategic objectives are cost reduction, revenue generation or any hybrid of the two, LCDPs can enable you to achieve those aims.

This is because a LCDP – like all digital tools – is an enablement device to be used across the value chain, in essence to drive profitability.

From a purely innovation point of view, I can not see a reason why LCDPs are not a regularly adopted tool at any large enterprise, and if I was advising an SME I would suggest some of the scenario modelling described above should be undertaken to evaluate the cost-benefits of implementation.

But it is important that although they can better align digital/development and business factions within your organisation, you still need to have the ideas, the processes, and the resources (including the right people) to make Low-code Development Platforms a worthwhile addition to your innovation toolkit. Without these, it’ll end the same way as that dusty exercise bike in your garage.