Low code vs. custom software development

Low code / no code applications are growing in popularity. These apps promise to give anyone the opportunity to develop functional, helpful applications. With simple drag and drop features, and API integration, these low code apps can become part of larger business processes.

Low code apps are primarily used in the following ways.

  1. Database capabilities. When a user wants more depth than Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, low code solutions provide a relational database that can be used to manage almost anything. For example, Airtable provides a growing number of user-created templates that are used to manage things like:
    1. Marketing campaigns
    2. Job applicants
    3. Projects
    4. Events
    5. Products
  1. Mobile apps, portals and websites. Solutions like Appy Pie and AppSheet allow businesses to create their own mobile application or website without knowing code.
  2. Business platform creator. Solutions like Monday and Kintone come with pre-built blocks to automate your sales, accounting, and marketing teams, to allow teams work from one central dashboard.
  3. Business solution extender. Microsoft PowerApps are designed to add functionality to Dynamics 365, Microsoft 365 and other Microsoft tools.
  1. Workflow and integration. Almost all low code apps combine data from multiple platforms. Either out-of-the-box or with solutions like Zapier, ITTT (If this then that) and Microsoft Power Automate, workflows connect popular apps and services to each other.

Low code apps sound great. Let’s go!

Hold on a second. Low code apps remove the need to know a programming language, BUT… that does NOT automatically make them easy to use – or the right solution for your business.

As a custom software development company, we see companies dive head-first into low code apps without a proper strategy or evaluation. The result is frustrated business users and half-baked solutions that create as many problems as they solve.

We’re not against low code apps.

We use them for our own clients when it makes sense to do so. But a solution (by definition) solves a particular problem.

Let’s say you own apartment buildings. You want a better way to document the condition of an apartment on the occupant move-in date.  You can solve this problem by:

  • Taking pictures and filling out a form. Scan and store those materials in a folder associated with the apartment unit.
  • Buy an off-the-shelf application that creates an apartment inspection report.
  • Use a low code app to create an apartment inspection report.
  • Use a custom developed application to create an apartment inspection report.

No matter how you decide to solve the problem, you need to define:

  • What information do you want to collect?
  • How will it be standardized and categorized? (Unit, Kitchen)
  • What level of detail is required? (Inside of oven?)
  • What field types best suit each item? (free form text, dropdown field with a scale 1-5, multiple choice options, etc.)
  • Where will the information be stored? (File, CRM system)
  • Are there conditions that trigger an action? (Dirty carpet –> Carpet cleaning –> Work order for maintenance)

That’s just a short list of questions for a relatively simple business process.

Only part of a software developer’s job is writing code. Much of the work is about properly defining processes and understanding the exceptions to that process. Think of low code apps like a power tool. They can make a job go faster, but only if you know how to build something in the first place.

10 common low code software issues

We want you to go into your next software development project understanding some of the common problems we see in all software development projects, but in particular, low code do-it-yourself (DIY) projects.

  1. Not gathering the requirements first. Just like the simple example above, you need to think through the steps of the business process before you begin creating it. Otherwise, what happens is that you may accidentally create multiple processes with conflicting rules – or realize you don’t capture that information in the first place.
  2. Not structuring the data correctly. Non-technical users find it challenging to structure the data correctly, to reduce the duplication of effort, but also to get the value needed from the software. Programmers think about how tables relate to each other, and how changing a record will impact other areas of the database.
  3. Over-complicating workflows. Start simply. Get one thing working correctly and build on it. When you have too many moving parts and too many systems involved, it can be difficult to understand where the process is breaking down.
  4. Not documenting your work. One of the lessons every young software developer learns is the importance of creating good documentation as they go. That way, if you’re getting an unexpected result, you go back to the last changes you made.
  5. Spending too much time on the wrong things. Do you really want to build and maintain your own app? It’s easy to spend hours learning how to use this low code app, only to find yourself having to learn more and more to accomplish what you really want. It’s also easy to get stuck on devilish details that make little difference at the end. Is this the right font? Should this red be more red?
  6. Getting deep into the project and realizing you’re stuck. You may run into scalability or security limitations that can’t be overcome. We see this all the time with companies wanting to replace Microsoft Access. If you eventually find that this low code solution won’t meet your needs, can you easily export the data to bring it into a different system?
  7. Having integration limitations. This may be hardware or software. Sometimes a low code app seems perfect for managing a singular task, like collecting data from an IoT device, but integration may not be easy – or even possible.
  8. Billing surprises. Billing can be by user, by record count, by systems involved or functionality added. Seemingly small expenses can add up, and it may be difficult to truly know the full expenses going into the project.
  9. Outgrow storage limits. Some systems (both low code and commercial) have storage limits. Once you exceed a threshold, you get bumped up to a higher expense tier.
  10. Limited reporting. One of the requests we get all the time is to build reports. How long did this process take? How did we do this season compared to last? Make sure your solution has the ability to get the reports you need to run your business.

If a no code or low code solution is capable of meeting your needs, we’re all for it… but when possible, we recommend building solid solutions that become foundational to your business.

Low code apps vs. software development

Some people believe the myth that custom software development is prohibitively expensive. Software development can be very affordable, and even a bargain compared to manually managing processes or trying to do-it-yourself to create your own database or app.

We primarily use Django, a Python framework that provides a fast, secure and scalable way to develop custom applications. While Django is not designed for the average business user, we think that’s a good thing. You can get what you need – with better performance – and without the trials and tribulations of doing it yourself.

As a technology advisor for growing businesses, our goal is to get you the outcomes you want. That may mean recommending an off-the-shelf / SaaS business application, a low code app, or custom software development.  We can help you consider all your options to make the best decision for YOUR business.

Reach out for a no-obligation 30-minute consultation to discuss your needs.

IT quiz

What is low code development?

Low code is an approach to application development that’s very visual and includes little to no coding to build. It enables people of all experience levels to create applications using drag and drop features.

Why is low code development important?

Low code development offers application development for those that aren’t very tech savvy. Companies must build applications to work across a wide range of devices. Low code makes that easy for any employee.

Why should I get custom software?

Custom software is specifically tailored to your business needs. You will get software with every bell and whistle you need, extra security and long-term support.

Can you build an app without coding?

Yes. There are plenty of no-code and low code app builders running around. Create an app in minutes, without any coding experience.