For all the pomp and mystique surrounding industry “Analysts” whose various reports—Gartner Magic Quadrants, Forrester Waves, and 451 Research Insights—can make or break a company, the driving force behind these reports are people. Just people.

I’ve had the benefit of working with several analysts before they were, and by and large they are all very well-respected and the kind of folks you’d have over to a BBQ on the weekend. But, what they do on a daily basis is no picnic. Creating these reports is the culmination of hundreds of hours worth of emails and surveys and more boring PPT presentations than you can shake a stick at. And that’s on both sides of the table—analyst and vendor alike.

But when you’ve got a winning recipe, it’s a lot more fun!

OutSystems is in the enviable position of finding itself either at, or very near, the top of most analyst reports pertaining to our business for several years in a row now.

Recently, OutSystems was recognized as a “Leader” (again) in Gartner’s “Magic Quadrant for Enterprise Low-Code Application Platforms” (LCAP) report.  This is important because of all the many reports OutSystems appears in, this Gartner report applies most directly to the core OutSystems business. This report also cuts to the heart of the importance and benefits of low-code for enterprises specifically.

The Nine Critical Capabilities for Low-Code

We thought we would take an abbreviated, but more pointed, direction.

Yes, in its LCAP Critical Capabilities report, Gartner “weights” each vendor on nine critical capabilities. But, a more interesting categorization, at least from a real-world applicability standpoint, breaks vendors’ capabilities down into four “Use Case” weighting classifications:

  • Citizen development
  • Business unit IT applications
  • Enterprise IT composite applications
  • SaaS and independent software vendor (ISV) mobile and web applications

In layman's terms, these use cases rank low-code vendor platforms on how well they function when used either by, or for, particular designs:

  • Non-professional-developer friendliness. Is the platform designed so that technically-minded people who don’t code for a living, can use it to build apps while also ensuring there is governance in place to prevent Shadow IT scenarios?
  • Support for developing not just simple, internal mobile and web apps, but process-centric internal applications that bring value to the business unit.
  • For professional IT developers, the ability to create apps of any type (B2B, B2E, B2C) and of any complexity. These usually aggregate data from multiple sources and often hook into applications and systems, internally or externally, through APIs or other integration capabilities.
  • Experience-rich apps targeting other businesses and end-user customers. These types of apps are the touchpoints through which enterprises interact with their customers and as such, they must meet all the rigorous requirements for mobile and web app design and usability.

Within these four use cases, we see the “80/20” rule in effect, where 20 percent (usually two) of the nine different weighting classifications make up 80 percent of the total weighting for each area. Let’s look at each below.

Use Case #1 - Low-Code for Citizen Developers

Of the nine critical capabilities evaluated against the citizen development friendliness of low-code platforms, “no code development” counts for 75 percent of this category’s weighting.

Isn’t that curious? In a report grading “low-code” platforms, the ability to offer “no-code” functionality is highly valued.

You can read about the differences between low-code and no-code in a previous blog of ours, and there are many. But, for this report, it appears to us that Gartner believes a LCAP needs to allow citizen developers, technically minded people with little to no prior app dev experience,  the ability to develop line-of-business (LOB) apps almost completely using prebuilt templates, connectors, APIs, and logic.

However, Gartner does point out the dangers of unfettered citizen development and includes consideration for “guardrails and governance.” Why? Well, consider what could happen when even a couple of employees in accounting build an app, run it on their own systems, and share it with a couple of other people and they all start using it as part of their everyday processes.

It wouldn’t take long before something created as a side-app becomes a significant piece of business software that may not have adequate security and privacy controls built into it. Legal departments don’t like that, and they roll their ire downhill to the IT department who should never have let such a thing happen. No, any low-code platform designed for both skilled and citizen developers should include enough safeguards to prevent such a scenario without discouraging its use.

Gartner’s parting recommendation in this category includes a nod to the fact that most citizen development functionality will not include higher development capabilities such as business workflows and un-templated complex logic. For that, we have the next category.

Use Case #2 - Business Unit IT Applications

In this use case, Gartner gives 50 percent of its weighting to the critical capability titled, “Back-end data, logic, and processes.” In short, this identifies how well an LCAP accesses, uses, and shares data and business logic processes. Business logic processes address how information moves through an organization.

A very simple example of a business process would be what happens when a new customer is onboarded and how their information is moved through the organization. A well-designed process ensures their information is collected and shared, and details what happens at different points along the way; service techs dispatched, billing department notified and invoices prepared, etc.

A 2019 RedHat survey reported that 93 percent of organizations are engaged in multiple process improvement projects. 79 percent reported using some kind of business process tool to model and implement their changes, but only 50 percent were satisfied with the BPM tool. There’s certainly room for improvement.

Respected Forbes contributor and founder-slash-analyst at Intellyx Jason Bloomberg points out that traditional business process management (BPM) software vendors are either trying to become also-ran low-code vendors, or they are trying to reinvent themselves as robotic process automation (RPA) vendors, which is heralded as the next step in BPM’s evolution.

The problem with BPM vendors trying to “do” low-code, is that they are, first and foremost, business process focused. That has been, and remains, a niche need. An important one, and one that can save organizations a lot of money, but niche still.

In Gartner’s report, the two biggest BPM-first vendors scored highly in this process-heavy weighting. But then, in the other three categories, they lagged behind their less nichey competitors.

What remains is the conundrum BPM-first vendors find themselves in; they remain best at what they were designed to do first: BPM. They haven’t satisfied most experts’ true low-code worthiness to satisfy the full spectrum of enterprise use cases.

The second part of Gartner’s requirements in this category requires that an LCAP facilitate the development of business unit apps in less than three month.

Seasoned IT professionals immediately recognize the significance of this. In our own 2019 State of Application Development report, nearly 40 percent of respondents said it takes at least four months to release a new web app. The good news is that low-code users were 11 percent more likely to deliver web applications in 4 months or less compared to those not using low-code.

Skipping Forward to Use Case #4 - SaaS and Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Mobile and Web Applications

We skipped Use Case #3 for now. We’ll come back to it. Use case #2 talks about citizen developers. Use Case #4 also cuts to the heart of the simplicity of LCAPs and what you can do with them with limited expertise.

Of the four weighted use cases, this is by far the most visible. Not surprisingly, 50 percent of the weighting in this category goes to the critical capability “End-User Experience.”

Gartner describes its “End-User Experience” consideration as:

“How does the platform support rich mobile and web interfaces and continuous user experience, as well as other user interfaces?”

While many think of screen resolution and application responsiveness as the cornerstones of a good user experience, increasingly, considerations such as progressive web apps, cross-platform design, and advanced multi-channel capabilities such as IVR and AI-based chatbots yield consistently high app store ratings.

Web and mobile app development has evolved into a specialist skill set, and that means you’re going to pay more for their expertise. But even with their skills, a low-code platform can facilitate the development of mobile and web apps, and others. If you have the luxury of skilled CX designers, great! They can build whatever they want on the low-code platform significantly faster than if they had to hand-code, test, and deploy to multiple platforms all by hand.

If you don’t have CX designers on staff, then make sure that your low-code platform has a library of modern UI screens, templates, and connectors to build experiences your customers will love. Even better, your low-code platform should have pre-built UX/UI designs for specific business use cases, such as field service or call centers. With templates like these, it’s very simple to customize them with your branding and launch them as your own. No one will know it’s not a native design.

Critical Capability - UX Data, Logic, and Processes

This second heaviest weighted critical capability in this Use Case is no less important, particularly when designing for customer experience. How an app looks is only second to how well it functions. If buttons are hard to find or if it takes more than a couple of swipes or clicks to get to what you’re looking for, you’ve done a poor job of designing the logic and process flow within your app.

Handling data input is tricky as well. Validation is equally important for both online and offline considerations and how your application handles input errors can mean the difference between getting the information you need and completing the task, and losing a potential customer for life.

Most graphics designers aren’t great at logic and process flows, and vice versa. Now you’re back to needing specialists and hoping they work well together. Or, you could use a low-code platform and employ its data handling, logic, and process flow capabilities to tie everything together and create smooth, frictionless apps that function as well as they look.

Back to Use Case #3 - Enterprise IT Composite Applications

This use case tackles an LCAP’s ability to let IT professional developers build complex B2x applications that include full-featured Customer Experience capabilities and that are at least as good as anything you’ll get from a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), SaaS, or cloud-based service.

When people talk about core digital transformation, this is what they are talking about.

The three Critical Capabilities most heavily weighted in this Use Case are:

  • Integration Capabilities: 50%
  • Enterprise IT SDLC Support: 20%
  • Advanced Architecture Support: 20%

Critical Capability - Integration Capabilities

Venture capitalist, Chris Lynch said of data,

“Big data is at the foundation of all of the megatrends that are happening today, from social to mobile to the cloud to gaming.”

New Vantage Partners, Big Data and AI Executive Survey 2019

Truly, given the state of our business and social lives and habits, there’s little utility in applications or systems that can’t integrate with other things.

Even the most simple business models can benefit from the use of data.

Run a food truck? Where are the most highly-concentrated areas for foot-traffic during lunch hours. Have a small cleaning company? Use your existing data for better transportation logistics planning to minimize travel between sites. Now, expand that to a global enterprise and you quite literally can’t even imagine all of the ways you could use data to create value.

In fact, a 2019 study by New Vantage Partners revealed that 69 percent of enterprise C-levels admitted they still have not been able to create a data-driven organization. Even more surprisingly, that number has risen over the last three years.

But having the data is only half the battle. Figuring out how to use the data and then integrating it  into your systems and processes is probably more difficult. A low-code platform can simplify this by abstracting the integration visually into workflows that you can easily create and change as needed.

Critical Capability - Enterprise IT SDLC Support

In addition to integration with internal and external data sources, the second part of this category graded LCAPs on how well they integrated with existing tools and 3GL applications already in use within the enterprise.

One fearful myth we often hear from professional developers about low-code is that it’s going to nullify their existing, marketable skills. The reality is that low-code platforms work with developers and their existing skills. No LCAP vendor has a crystal ball and can correctly predict every trend. Nor can any single vendor build a platform that has everything needed to build every kind of system and app from here to eternity. Sometimes what you need, or what your team likes using, is a third-party tool. No worries. An enterprise-worthy LCAP that can integrate with those tools so that for the majority of the software development lifecycle, everyone is working off the same page and in the same platform.

Critical Capability - Advanced Architecture Support

The last kernel of guidance in this use case involves future-looking application support for technologies like artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, cloud-native architectures, and support for dynamic event stream. It covers a lot of ground. Even Gartner’s definition of this critical capability and how they award scoring appears to us to involve more than a little bit of guesswork. To be fair, analysts have to rely on vendor-provided product roadmaps to try and determine how a product will evolve, so a little “informed guesswork” is to be expected.

From an architecture standpoint, don’t limit your investigation into LCAPS solely on architecture alone. It’s certainly helpful to know whether the platform has an SOA or microservices-based architecture because that can give you clues into its future relevance. Also try and determine what else the platform’s architecture supports. If it natively supports emerging technologies like IoT, AI, and advanced machine learning while empowering the use of APIs and connectors, that's another hint that the platform is built to adapt to changing market needs.

There is no easy guidance here and our best suggestion for digging into this and trying to determine for yourself whether a particular vendor will meet your needs for years to come, is to try it out. Assuming the vendor offers a free or trial version, have several people of different backgrounds and skill sets download and install the platform. Have them try and do what they already do every day and see how well it performs.

Final Thoughts

Evaluating solutions to SDLC problems in IT shouldn’t involve a pros and cons list, or force you to explore the tradeoffs of selecting “A” over “B.” We’re programmed to believe the old maxim, “We can work fast, good, or cheap; you pick two” is the reality. And that’s unfortunate.

Much of what was discussed here included a ‘best case’ scenario from a platform standpoint. But not every platform satisfies our best case. In addition to the discussion points above, keep the following in mind as you evaluate LCAP vendors:

  • What is the LCAPs roots? Was it a niche COTS solution first and a low-code platform second? Or, was it designed to address enterprise low-code application development from the start?
  • What is the vendor’s track record of integrating with third-party applications and data sources? If they have been slow to do so, or still can’t, that’s a good indication of their future limitations.
  • Don’t just look at the brochure and what it says the platform can do. Ask how the platform is architected. Are the applications created in such a way that they can be easily updated as needed? If a technology your apps rely on is discontinued, how does that impact your systems? Does the vendor use a proprietary framework that locks you into that platform for a decade or more? And then what happens if you want to switch vendors? Do you even OWN your own code?

The further you dig into low-code vs. no-code, or low-code vs. niche solutions, the better you’ll understand why OutSystems is confident that you can have, maybe not cheap, but less expensive, fast, and good all in a single platform.

If you’re still not sure OutSystems can meet all of your needs, we invite you to explore the platform yourself. Click here and download your free personal environment. When you’re ready to get started, we’ll be here.