Perspective: The Limitations of Form and Workflow Builders

JourneyApps combines the speed and efficiency of no-code/low-code platforms with the flexibility and power of traditional professional development tools into a single platform while taking an uncompromising stance on providing an incredible developer experience.

JourneyApps is based on open technologies, including the most popular scripting language in the world (JavaScript). Therefore, finding developer talent and onboarding them is easy.

With JourneyApps, developers find the best of both worlds: they can leverage tools that vastly increase development efficiency (such as visual app-building tools, pre-built UI components, and powerful database controls) while always retaining the ability to edit application code. Core challenges of field app development like offline functionality and cross-platform support can be considered solved.

As a lot of companies are looking at form digitization as a way to drive organizational digital transformation, let’s take a look at a commonly considered approach: using a no-code or low-code form and workflow builder.

Considering a no-code or low-code workflow builder?

The promise of no- and low-code form builders and workflow builders:

No-code and low-code workflow platforms were created to solve a real problem for enterprise IT groups: In the push for digital transformation, the sheer volume of requests from the business for new apps have outstripped IT’s capacity to deliver on all these needs.

These platforms promise to solve this problem by shifting the responsibility of delivering these digital solutions from IT to the business itself — the “citizen developer” approach.

This is typically done through providing business users with a business process modeling interface to build out a process and a UI, which then gets translated into a workflow that can be completed on a front-end application.

However, as enterprises gain more and more experience in delivering digital solutions through these tools, they are often disappointed to learn this promise can only be half-kept.

The challenge of delivering on the citizen developer promise

When complexity increases, projects end up back with IT.

Generally, no-code and low-code workflow platforms are aimed at providing an easy way to digitize simple business processes.

However, as workflow complexity increases (for example through non-linear workflow requirements, conditional workflow steps, displaying large amounts of data etc.) the required functionality becomes more difficult to implement with a no-code platform. That is to say, the ease and speed of implementation decrease rapidly as custom code, workarounds, calls with the vendor, etc. need to be undertaken and IT is left to get projects back on track. In many cases, there is no solution at all, and an important business requirement may remain unmet.

The graph below illustrates this relationship, including the point where no- and low-code approaches reach their limit of supportable app complexity. The relative performance of JourneyApps and traditional professional development (“pro-code”) approaches are included as reference points:

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As Gartner states in their 2019 Low-Code Development Technologies Evaluation Guide:

“Through 2024, at least 75% of low-code application development efforts will be limited to small- to moderate-scale projects supporting non-mission-critical workloads.”

As new digital technologies emerge, solutions need to be extensible to keep up

Planning for digital transformation requires some guesswork – who is to say what the critical digital technology of the future will be? Fortunately, at least one trend has become clear: technologies will need to be ever more integrated with data flowing more freely between both hardware and software systems.

While no-code and low-code workflow platforms can provide a way to take an initial step towards digital transformation — moving from paper forms or Excel worksheets to digital workflows — their no-code focus limits the ways in which they can respond to new technologies.

As an example, consider an equipment inspection use case:

While there may be an immediate need to digitize an equipment inspection form, in what ways could this need evolve as the industry becomes more digitally mature? Here are examples of possible paths the need can take:

  • Equipment data is recorded by IoT-enabled monitoring sensors which can communicate through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). This should be read and displayed on mobile devices in real time.
  • Mobile devices should graphically display equipment performance history since the previous inspection.
  • Equipment inspection history should automatically be displayed as part of a related equipment maintenance workflow.
  • An online dashboard should visualize all relevant equipment that have clean inspections as well as those that have reported issues. The dashboard should be updated in near-real time.

The question must be asked: How will the chosen software platform support evolving business needs?

Being itself built on open technologies, JourneyApps represents a future-proof tool with the extensibility to support emerging technologies.

The niche focus of JourneyApps as an app development platform for industrial companies means that many emerging technologies are already supported by the platform, such as BLE, IIoT integration, MQTT data consumption, offline device-to-device data transfer, and others.

What initially seems very promising becomes a limitation

A core challenge presented by no-code platforms is that they require users to adopt and learn proprietary technologies and visual interfaces that have a long learning curve to achieving mastery.

While open technologies such as JavaScript and TypeScript have massive adoption and are taught around the world, no-code workflow platforms typically have unique proprietary ways of doing things that have limited adoption outside of their own user base.

Ironically, we have seen that this often puts an organization in an even more precarious position than before the adoption of such a platform, because:

  • An initially broad group of “citizen developers” naturally narrows as some gain more experience than others and become subject-matter experts on the no-code platform.
  • As more and more requests are routed through this limited group of subject-matter experts, they themselves become a bottleneck, because not all “citizen developers” can implement all requirements for digital solutions.
  • Replacing these subject-matter experts is even more difficult than building out IT teams, because:
    • The talent pool from which to hire subject-matter experts is highly limited because mastery of the no-code platform can be achieved only through extensive use of the tool itself.
    • Existing developers on the IT team want to avoid moving to such no-code tools because they see their proprietary nature and limitations as career-limiting.

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