What Your Agency Should Know About Low-Code Development Solutions 

By CJ Capizzi, Principal Technical Director and Steve Skurski, Human Centered Design Lead 

What if we said your Federal Government agency could have a user-ready application quickly, at low cost, with low development effort and business rules baked in? It sounds like a win, right? So what is the issue? As with most solutions, the devil is in the details.  

Many agencies are making the jump to low-code development platforms, such as Appian, Bizagi, and ServiceNow to accelerate delivery and add value while working to meet their mission. It makes sense. Low-code platforms are not new to the market, but their footprint has expanded across private and public sectors in recent years, resulting in an influx in implementation partners. In 2018, one article projected the low-code market would grow to $27.2 billion annually by 2022 from $4.3 billion in 2017 with an aggressive 44% annual growth rate. In 2020, the global low-code application development platform market size jumped again, projected to reach $86.92 billion by 2027. 

While those are telling numbers, before your agency decides to leverage a low-code platform, you need to make sure it is the most appropriate solution for your project. You want to be careful before jumping in too quickly because you may find that an open source or other solution offers you more flexibility to meet project and user needs. This often includes spending the upfront time and effort to document the program and user needs, as well as pain points and opportunity areas. After you have this foundational understanding, then you can begin to analyze whether a low-code solution is the right hammer to drive in your nail.  

If you’ve done your homework and do decide that a low-code solution is right for your project, then you will need to select the right implementation partner. In keeping up with low-code market and trends, we’ve identified major pitfalls agencies procuring low-code implementation services should be aware of. 

  • Jack of All Hats: The selling point of many low-code platforms is the simplicity and guard rail laden development environment that enables almost anyone with some basic training or a bootcamp to be hands-on in configuration. Many organizations view this as an opportunity to combine or streamline the skillsets and staff the product team with team members wearing very different multiple hats such as analyst/developer, instead of having dedicated business analysts, designers, and developers. These organizations realize later that while these multi-hatted resources can satisfy each of these functions in some capacity, they lack the depth of expertise within each skillset to fully deliver a world class solution.  

Octo’s Point of View: We recommend building balanced product teams with dedicated team members focused on user interface/user experience (UI/UX) design, development, and quality assurance. To avoid over inflated team sizes, roles such as UI/UX Designers can be shared across teams to maximize their capacity. Business Analysts can dual hat as a Business Analyst and Quality Assurance (QA) Tester. However, developers should not be supporting analysis, design, development, and testing activities in a single role. This team configuration allows members to practice their expertise while implementing solutions accurately and with efficiency.  

  •   Low/No-Code ≠ Low/No User Research: Many low-code customers are sold on the cost savings and speed-to-market to develop on these platforms, disregarding the need for human centered design to ensure the right solution is being built. The issue these organizations run into is that while they do get an application that is ready to go, it might not be solving the most important problems or work the way that makes sense for users. And if it is not solving the right problems or if it is causing confusion for users, then the cost savings and speed to market advantages are negated. 

Octo’s Point of View: We recognize the need to engage with users even when using a low-code platform. Widely accepted user research methods, like interviews and contextual sessions observing users in their natural environment and soliciting feedback to augment interviews should be part of every development process. This enables product teams to learn how the solution should be configured to meet current and emerging user needs.  

  •   Not Being a Team Player: Many low-code platforms have safeguards that prohibit multiple developers from working on the same UI concurrently. To accommodate this perceived limitation, many vendors will assign individuals to features to avoid developers “walking over” each other’s code, resulting in longer lead times to deliver features to production. But this inhibits a key pillar of efficient Agile software development, which is based on the Lean Principle of Flow where many team members (as possible) swarm to work on the highest priority item (i.e., feature) until the work is done aiming to reduce time to value. 

Octo’s Point of View: Octo promotes an Agile approach, even with low-code solutions. Proactive dependency management through inter- and intra-team collaboration in Agile ceremonies such as backlog grooming and Scrum of Scrums enables an environment where teams can more effectively swarm to the highest priorities and deliver value faster to the mission. We recommend performing an early architectural assessment prior to committing to features to map out both external and internal dependencies to navigate around some of the technical limitations of many of these platforms.  

  3. Platform Limitations: Many low-code platforms don’t offer a robust set of interface component and function options when it comes to building modern innovative applications. For example, modern web applications include sliding drawers, real-time editing, drag and drop user interfaces, just to name a few specifications. Low-code platforms tend to be limited in dynamic functionality to enable a streamlined developer experience. 

Octo’s Point of View: Users want the easiest solution possible for completing their tasks. We recommend establishing partnerships with low-code original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and maintaining an open dialogue on upcoming releases as well as identifying and advocating for platform enhancements. This is pivotal to delivering users the right solution and enabling technical teams with the right toolkit. 

A low-code solution can be great for building applications quickly and at a relatively low cost. But your agency must ensure the solution will be the correct one for users and the organization in the long term. Otherwise, you could end up spending more time and money than anticipated. 

Octo has experience implementing low-code platforms at federal agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). We maintain partnerships with multiple low-code OEMs. Reach out to us to discuss how we can accelerate the delivery of your mission critical capabilities.