The term “low-code app development” didn’t exist until a few years ago but the concept isn’t a new one. There’s long been a notion in enterprises and SMBs of the “power user” or “citizen developer,” meaning business users who see an opportunity to optimize a process and take it upon themselves to create their own apps. To do so, they often dabble in technologies such as Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) programming in Microsoft Excel. Low-code tools expand that philosophy from only the most tech-savvy of workers to any average employee who sees a business problem or process that a simple app could optimize and solve, and sets out to build it themselves.
The other side of the equation is traditional developers and IT, for which these low-code platforms are designed to accelerate software delivery by quickly building apps for specific business use cases. Rather than spend the time and manual effort to code an app from scratch that is made up of common features and components, low-code platforms let the developers work from existing templates and drag prebuilt elements, forms, and objects together to get a particular department or team the simple working app they need with a lot less hassle. As a result, low-code platforms are designed to serve both of these types of users at once.
That’s a tricky proposition because the platforms need to cater to two categories of users with drastically different skill sets and preferences. Low-code platforms need to give everyday business users a dead-simple UI which with to build an app step by step in relatable terms and with plenty of help along the way. At the same time, the tools need to simplify the development process for IT while still giving more tech-savvy users a selection of customization options, plus the ability to pull in things like third-party services, additional data sources, and layer on additional security and compliance. That’s a lot for one platform to do while also keeping everything simple within a unified experience.
As such, not every tool is adept at doing both. Some platforms excel at providing an intuitive, guided experience in which most people can quickly get the hang of the process and start designing task-oriented apps to fill specific business needs. These needs include measuring progress on a project or building a simple form-based app for tracking employee shift scheduling.
Others platforms are a bit more difficult for the average user without much of a programming background to use. But these platforms excel at giving developers an environment in which they can build complex process models, map database objects to user workflows, and customize UI design, without having to write their own code. The most mature low-code tools are adept at doing both. Mendix, OutSystems, and Salesforce App Cloud offer an array of training courses and Help resources, which lead directly into a responsive, drag-and-drop UI in which you can design an app by using a variety of templates. At the same time, within the same dashboard, these enterprise-grade tools also house an extensive library of database objects and UI components that you can pull into a sleek visual process modeler. Salesforce is also a good example of the tightrope on which these platforms need to walk because, despite having arguably the most impressive array of features, the resulting UI is so cluttered and complicated that it compromises the value of the platform. Low-code tools should be simple and straightforward above all else.
The circular logic in all of this is that letting citizen developers quickly build their own basic apps fundamentally takes pressure off of the IT department. Rather than inundating your development team with a queue full of requests for simple apps, the teams can build the apps themselves and to the spec for which they need it. IT can then come in after-the-fact to tweak and iterate on it after the bulk of the coding work is done.
It’s important to look at low-code development platforms from all of these viewpoints. Ideally, you want the sales and marketing or helpdesk teams to be as comfortable using the tool as a software engineer from your IT department who needs to quickly pull in multiple data sources to build a website monitoring tool for a redesigned component of your website. In that light, we took a slightly different approach to testing these products than how PCMag normally conducts product reviews.
In each of the low-code development platforms reviewed in this roundup, we tested from the perspective of both an average business user and a seasoned app developer. Testing independently, we endeavored to see how the same tool handled varied levels of development expertise and a different set of requirements depending on the type of app we aimed to build.
To test from the perspective of your Average Joe business user, we used each respective low-code tool to build the same basic scheduling app. The goal was to build an app that could add a new event (name, date/time, duration), invite users to the event, a Save button to create the event, and the ability to view a list of events in Calendar view or via chronological list. Bonus points were given for added functionality such as notifications or deeper ability to customize the UI. But the goal was to build and deploy a simple app—ideally available in both desktop and mobile formats—that executes one straightforward business process.
When testing from a developer/IT perspective, the standard app we built using each tool was a bit more complicated. Our professional programmer, who chose to remain anonymous, tested the tools by building a collaborative contact management app called Crowd Control. This app is intended to be a simple contact manager with a contact list page, a contact detail page, and a new contact page. We also wanted the ability to add photos and multiple notes to each contact, and the ability to pull in third-party services and add any additional features or automated logic to the app was a plus. We needed a slightly more complicated app that would be useful whether on the desktop or mobile, so Crowd Control was hypothetically intended as a mobile, collaborative contact manager for a sales team.
For this side of the testing, we gauged success on a couple of factors. Was our developer able to implement the full feature set, and also simulate changes to the app over time? IT departments have a regular need to push fixes and updates to business apps, so to simulate the project maintenance aspect of the process, our developer also tested whether the tools could handle adding a new field to the data model and pushing that change to the app, as well as changing an existing field to see whether the change is reflected without app errors.
The changes I simulated were adding a new field to the data model and including that field in the app and changing an existing field in the data model and having that change properly reflected in the app.
We also aimed to answer the same set of basic questions about each low-code experience:
Were we able to build a basic, working app?
Was the form-based and drag-and-drop object modeling UIs easier and time-saving or were they harder to use as compared to traditional coding?
What customization features and added capabilities were available during the low-code development process?
Did the platform require any coding while building the app? If so, how much and in what context?
The term “low-code” itself comes from tech research and analysis firm Forrester Research. Analysts Clay Richardson and John Rymer coined the term in Forrester’s 2014 report, “New Development Platforms Emerge For Customer-Facing Applications,” and followed that up last year with two market reports, “The Forrester Wave: Low-Code Development Platforms, Q2 2016,” and “Vendor Landscape: The Fractured, Fertile Terrain Of Low-Code Application Platforms.” The company’s broad definition is: “Platforms that enable rapid delivery of business applications with a minimum of hand coding and minimal upfront investment in setup, training, and deployment.”
Forrester’s description gives you the basics: Low-code platforms should make it fast and easy to design, deploy, and use business apps. The low-code landscape itself is far more nuanced, with dozens of companies in the space.
Copyright © 2017, Forrester Research, Inc.
As such, there is a long list of tools we could have chosen to review in this roundup. Over time, we’ll be adding new tools and updating individual reviews as new features become available. As a living and breathing document, some of the tools listed today may not be listed in a year as scores may change and new products may be added to the roundup. As you try solutions, be sure to check back in with us to see if any new software has been added to this roundup.
For our initial testing, we focused on a few industry stalwarts, smaller but experienced low-code vendors, and a couple of up-and-coming platforms from some tech giants trying to disrupt the space. Appian, Mendix, OutSystems, and Salesforce are leading vendors in Forrester’s landscape report. They offer mature low-code platforms that have significantly evolved over the past decade or so. Appian, OutSystems, and Mendix have strong customer and developer communities around their products. Mendix, OutSystems, and Salesforce have the most mature ecosystems of all the tools we tested with their respective marketplaces and app stores for third-party apps and components. Those marketplaces and app stores are called Mendix App Store, OutSystems Forge, and Salesforce AppExchange, respectively.
TrackVia, Quick Base, and Zoho Creator have also been in the space for quite a while. They sit toward the middle of the low-code/no-code landscape, with a minimalist platform that features both an intuitive visual user interface (UI) and more complex logic and automation for developers. Nintex Workflow Cloud is another veteran player that has recently joined the SaaS party; it sports the best plug-and-play workflow automation of the bunch. Then we come to Google App Maker and Microsoft PowerApps, the two newest tools in this roundup. Both platforms recently emerged from beta, with glossy UIs and good-looking tool sets. It appears as though Google and Microsoft have been observing a fast-growing space and cherry-picked exactly the low-code features and user experience (UX) capabilities they wanted.
Competition in the low-code space is rapidly heating up as big and small companies, old and new players enter the space and refine their offerings. In our inaugural roundup of reviews pitting the best low-code development tools against one another, we chose heavyweights from both the veteran and newcomer corners of the space. There are two additional companies, K2 and Oracle, that we planned to include in this roundup. Both companies have major platform launches coming up in the next few months, and will be reviewed when their products become generally available.
All of these tools are close to one another in terms of ease of use, breadth of functionality, and overall low-code feature set, both from a business user and a developer perspective. We gave two Editors’ Choice awards in this roundup. One of them went to veteran platform Appian for everyday business users in enterprise organizations and the other went to newcomer Microsoft PowerApps for power users and developer use. Right behind them were Mendix and OutSystems, the two most powerful enterprise platforms; they provide a low-code experience for the full end-to-end software development and testing lifecycle as well as some of the strongest overall visual app creation and drag-and-drop automation UIs.
Appian, followed by Google App Maker and TrackVia, offered the most intuitive guided experience for the average business user with no coding experience who needs to quickly build an app for a specific purpose. Appian separates its offerings into the lightning-fast Appian Quicks Apps form builder for basic app creation, and the full-fledged Appian Designer for customization and developer use. Appian and Mendix are also the only tools that funnel all of the created low-code apps into a collaborative social intranet, which adds an additional productivity and gamification element to the experience that’s centered around projects, tasks, and social sharing within a team or enterprise organization.
Quick Base and Zoho Creator topped the list when it came to the fastest basic app creation for quickly building simple, form-based apps without a learning curve. These tools provided visual environments with straightforward form-builder and drag-and-drop UIs to create the basic app fast and without throwing too many options or heavy coding and logic at a user. Zoho had arguably the easiest-to-use UI design tool while Quick Base was the fastest from zero-to-app. The generated UI isn’t fancy but it is functional and easy to use. Interestingly, these two tools also have completely different approaches to building the app. With Zoho, you design the UI and the data model falls into place whereas Quick Base does just the opposite.
In our IT-focused testing, Microsoft PowerApps offered the best combination of a sleek UI (that evokes the feel of Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint) and powerful, low-code developer tools (for creating complex data models, automated logic and workflows, and providing a vast selection of objects, fields, and app elements to customize apps with little to no coding). Salesforce App Cloud offers an even more impressive low-code feature set but, as mentioned earlier, the tools are bogged down in a UI that can be a headache to navigate. Mendix and OutSystems were the two most powerful developer and IT-focused tools for larger enterprise organizations; they sport heavy-duty features such as automated software testing, app analytics, Scrum project planning, and more.
The catch with these players, aside from their steep enterprise pricing beyond the free plan, are their steeper learning curves relative to most other tools. You get a lot of power but the UIs are more involved and complicated to pick up than those of the newer kids on the block, such as App Maker and PowerApps. Appian’s full designer is powerful as well but the flashy new UIs of App Maker and PowerApps (the former of which is built in a familiar Google style according to its Material Design philosophy) make the old guard look, well, old.
All 10 tools also have helpful training resources, video and interactive tutorials, and documentation to help you through the app creation process. Google App Maker and Microsoft PowerApps did the best job of integrating those Help resources directly into the guided app creation experience, and OutSystems also has great guided app creation in its desktop environment. Salesforce, along with Mendix and OutSystems, has the most comprehensive training website, with dozens of courses for various aspects of its platform. The knock against Salesforce, when compared to the other enterprise players, is that inaccuracies between its training material and the updated UIs in the platform itself made that material hard to follow. Nintex Workflow Cloud suffered from similar issues despite its class-leading workflow automation and third-party integrations. The company is still in the process of updating and integrating several on-premises products into a unified, cloud-based experience. Appian, TrackVia, and Zoho all have comprehensive Help websites as well, which are structured more like traditional knowledge bases containing resources and community discussion topics.
It’s difficult to make a blanket appraisal of maturity across these tools but our developer concluded that Google App Maker, Microsoft PowerApps, and Zoho Creator all have impressive visual design tools, which are mature enough to handle development and data modeling for smaller apps. Appian, Quick Base, and TrackVia offered the most streamlined and simplified app creation process. But they can’t quite match the mature enterprise IT capabilities and development pipeline control you get with Mendix and OutSystems. Salesforce shined when it came to enterprise features such as data access controls, which are very much in your face when building data models.
One area in which these tools are all in need of improvement from an IT perspective is change management. Feature enhancements are sorely needed around the ability to stage a release to a subset of users plus the ability to roll back a release in case of an error. Mendix and OutSystems have one-click deployment and rollback, but there are still some kinks to work out in syncing data model changes to the UI.
After testing all of these tools, we found that, for relatively simple apps such as contact managers, task lists, and small inventory managers, these tools can get the job done. Some do it better than others depending on whether an average user or a programmer is using the tool. But for small to midsize businesses (SMBs), these kinds of platforms fill an important need to tackle business processes and specific scenarios with targeted solutions that lean into the app-centered revolution that has changed the way we work.
Enterprise businesses with more complex app development and compliance needs may have a harder time integrating low-code app creation tools into their development and legacy app stack. But enterprise-ready tools such as Appian, Mendix, OutSystems, and Salesforce show that it’s possible to do so when you account for issues such as identity management and security. Meanwhile, Nintex Workflow Cloud, PowerApps, and Salesforce App Cloud all boast a long list of third-party integrations and application programming interfaces (APIs) to connect existing apps and services. As stated earlier, Appian and Microsoft PowerApps take the Editors’ Choice nods this time around, with Mendix and OutSystems right behind them as the preferred choices for complex enterprise requirements.
Depending on your business needs, any one of these tools would be ideal for helping your organization get started with low-code app development. Democratizing access to simple app-building tools within your company has the potential to improve productivity, solve business problems faster, and give both your tech savvy and average Joe employee the means and the ability to apply the innovation of SaaS and modern mobile apps exactly where they need it