Technology

What Associations Can Borrow From the No-Code Trend

By / Mar 2, 2020 (Mykyta Dolmatov/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Both startups and large companies are finding a lot to like about a recent trend of building tools using graphical websites, rather than in a code editor. For associations, it could be a way to cover gaps in your technical staff.

I’m a pretty tech-savvy guy who knows his way around NPM, Sass, GitHub, and the terminal. So I’m fully aware that it’s become harder to try out a new idea on its own merits—especially for people less technical than me.

The increasing sophistication of many programming tools—for example, the growth of JavaScript into a full-fledged programming language on the back end, and the variety of tactics used to optimize website load—have put ambitious ideas out of the reach of tinkerers. In many ways, online creation without the help of a command line is becoming harder than ever.

This is unfortunate for a few reasons, including that it forces developer resources on even the simplest tasks. Despite the cries that everyone should “learn to code,” it leaves out a lot of organizations who aren’t asking for anything too complex.

But there’s a counter-trend in the startup world that’s shedding a little light on the drudgery of PHP and Python code: building applications with as little code as possible—and in some cases, no code at all.

“No-code development” involves building out ideas through graphical user interfaces. In many cases, you might take software originally developed for other purposes—a database tool like Airtable, an automation tool like Zapier or IFTTT, even Google Sheets—and make it mimic the workflow of a full application, with sophisticated modern web apps picking up the slack.

Essentially, you’re MacGyvering a web app out of a bunch of tools that can talk to each other. Because everything has an API, this is totally manageable now.

This approach isn’t new: Fans of early Macs probably have fond memories of tools like Hypercard, and the Apple subsidiary Claris has been producing FileMaker since the late 1980s. But the tech industry has moved well past awkward efforts to build websites without code. (Remember Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver?) Now, you can turn the web into an engine of sorts that can do pretty amazing things without a lot of extra trouble.

In fact, tools are emerging that allow for Hypercard-like development of user interfaces. One of the first was Webflow, a website-building tool that essentially modernized that FrontPage approach to web design. More recently, we’ve seen tools designed to allow for programming-like approaches without any code, the best known of these being Bubble.

Behind the resurgence more than anything else, however, is the startup space, where no-code approaches are being used to help validate ideas conceived by non-technical founders. While some ideas still need a programmer, many do not—and no-code development gives startups some necessary breathing room. It also lowers the barrier to entry, says Bram Kanstein, a Dutch expert on early-stage startups.

“The main advantage of these tools is that they show you don’t need to be technical to be a founder,” Kanstein recently told the website OZY. “Everyone, from a businessperson to a stay-at-home mom, can start developing ideas with these tools. They lower the threshold to starting your own business.”

And some of these tools aren’t startup-focused at all. For example, the enterprise-app-development platform Unqork has found a lot of success in the financial and insurance spaces.

Perhaps this isn’t the purist’s approach, and you’ll probably have a whole lot of small charges from SaaS platforms if you go this way, but it does help revive some of the freedom of the early web, where building out a simple website was as easy as visiting Geocities. For associations, it also promises to solve a persistent problem: a shortage of technical employees.

Recently, the employment site Dice suggested that for industries that struggle to hire developers into their field, no-code could be a game-changer.

“The solution to an unaffordable, understaffed talent pool is to avoid the pool altogether,” AirDev co-CEO Andrew Haller wrote in a guest post for the site. “Competing for top talent in any industry is going to lighten the wallet. However, with more companies going digital, there are simply fewer developers left to meet demand.”

That may sound a bit extreme, but there’s a less-extreme version of that idea: Too often, you’ve had to reach out to a developer to handle low-stakes development needs—for example, the addition of a widget on a website or a new layout approach. They slow your organization down and turn every digital update into an unnecessary project.

These are the kind of tasks that could be managed using a no-code approach, as they’re high-level changes that don’t mess with the overall infrastructure.

That way, if you’re dealing with a limited talent pool on the technical front you can properly utilize those resources.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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