Low-Code vs. Traditional Development

Author: Susan Coleman, Content Marketing Manager, Appian

When comparing low-code development with traditional, high-code development, it helps to have a basic understanding of how programming got to where it is today. From its earliest innovations to the present day, it’s clear that every new programming language has signaled an attempt to improve on what came before. These improvements have focused on introducing new capabilities and features, correcting flaws in earlier languages, adapting to advancements in computer hardware, and simplifying what had previously been complex.

Coding languages such as FORTRAN, BASIC, and COBOL in the 1950s and 1960s were largely supplanted by the likes of Java and Python in the 1990s, while a whole new(ish) batch of languages is vying to win the hearts and heads of developers in this century. Though some of the older languages are still in use and have adapted somewhat through subsequent releases, their limitations when functioning in tandem with the latest tech are often their downfall. As traditional software development evolves through the introduction of new languages, another evolution is taking place within the field of development with low-code.

How low-code came about.

The earliest use of the term “low-code” is said to have come from the analyst firm Forrester, which coined the expression in the 2010s. Low-code came into being out of the necessity to cut down on development time and simplify the entire process of designing, developing, delivering, and maintaining business applications. Sound familiar? Low-code’s goals are pretty much the same as the goals that have driven the creation of new high-code languages for decades. 

The way low-code development approaches these goals is also not entirely new. Low-code is sometimes described as an offshoot of fourth-generation language (4GL) and rapid application development (RAD), both of which sought to minimize the complexity and rigidity of traditional coding and software development. They did this by promoting more accessible languages and a flexible approach to development that relies less on advance planning and more on an iterative process that allows developers to learn and adapt along the way. A low-code approach offers “model-driven design and development, automatic code generation, a framework that provides most functionality so that only specific behavior needs to be coded, and visual programming 'by mouse click' instead [of] (or rather in addition to) hardcore coding.”1 In other words, long lines of complex code are replaced by a more visual means of application development.

Will low-code development replace traditional development?

The short answer to this question is “no.” There are enough differences between the ways low-code and a more traditional approach are used that they can coexist quite peacefully. There is also no real evidence to support the persistent rumor that low-code could eliminate the need for software developers. Though more non-technical citizen developers are trying their hand at software development thanks to low-code and no-code tools, there will always be a demand for highly skilled developers to create pixel-perfect software—increasingly using both traditional high-code languages and low-code application development platforms. Low-code should be another tool in the professional developer’s toolbox alongside traditional, high-code approaches. 

The longer answer, however, is that low-code may indeed replace some aspects of traditional programming. But, coming back to this idea of coexisting: the more developers embrace low-code for the use cases it excels at, such as addressing repetitive, manual processes and improving self-service options for customers and constituents, the more they’ll see its benefits and will choose to augment their custom code efforts with this faster, simpler approach to application development. This is already playing out, as illustrated by a recent developer survey. According to the survey, for developers who work with low-code, 60% reported working on mission-critical projects (as opposed to 40% of the developers using high-code methods), and an impressive 87% said they enjoy the work they do with low-code.

On the flip-side of this is the fact that a major selling point of low-code, besides speed and simplicity, is its ability to extend the functionality and usability of existing systems. This assumes that the existing systems will remain in place and require management, which necessitates both high-code programming and the personnel skilled in traditional custom development. So this symbiotic relationship where low-code and high-code complement one another is a much more feasible future than any scenario where one replaces the other.

When is it best to use low-code vs. a traditional development approach?

Deciding when to use which technology to use comes down to knowing your organization’s needs, the issues you want to solve with the technology, the project timeline and budget, and the resources you have available for your software development project. Low-code has distinct advantages over high-code development in areas such as:

  • Speed: Using traditional coding, even highly skilled programmers need many months to create a functioning application. With low-code, you can go from idea to working application in a matter of weeks.
  • Cost: Because low-code application development doesn’t require as much specialized programming knowledge, you can keep your low-code development teams lean.
  • Lower maintenance: Low-code platforms provide standardized, reusable components with the code built in, so there are far fewer bugs and integration issues to deal with. This is especially beneficial if you don’t have a huge development team.
  • Collaboration and rapid prototyping: Because low-code applications are designed and built using a graphical user interface for more visual modeling, business stakeholders—who by nature know their processes and needs better than anyone else in the organization—can be more involved from start to finish. With IT and the business more easily collaborating on testing and evaluating prototypes, you’ll be more likely to end up with an application that addresses all your needs.

Low-code tools have advanced by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years. But the quality of low-code platforms can vary from vendor to vendor. If you’re thinking about adopting low-code technology as part of your landscape, it’s important to do some research. Having a clear understanding of your needs and the types of low-code technologies that could meet those needs is vital to the success of your development project.

When is a traditional development method the better option?

Are there any scenarios where a traditional approach is the clear winner over low-code? As mentioned, low-code has seen a rather rapid evolution when it comes to functionality and usability, but you might consider going the route of custom software development if any of the following are needed:

  • Extensive customization: If you know an application requires high levels of customization and you have the skilled resources to do this kind of work, you may want to stick with traditional development. Most low-code platforms allow you to access the underlying code to customize as needed, but if you’re going to have to customize every component used in your application to get the functionality you want, then custom software development may be your best bet.
  • Niche requirements: For highly specialized needs, such as optimizing performance for a specific usage pattern that is unique to your business—for example, videos to be used on a streaming platform—you would need highly skilled developers and specific code to achieve the performance level the platform needs.
  • Choice of programming language: Low-code platform vendors use their own proprietary languages for the underlying code, so you wouldn’t be able to apply just any programming language or logic to make changes. If you have a strong preference for a certain language or set of languages, then high-code is the way to go.
  • A highly stylized user interface: Again here, it is possible to customize the code within a low-code application’s user interface components, but if you find you’re doing major reworks on all the underlying code to achieve the user interface of your dreams, then you should probably stick to high-code development for this aspect of your project.

Low-code and high-code: evolving together.

Contrary to what the title of this article suggests, low-code and high-code don’t need to have an adversarial relationship. As the (relatively) new kid in town, low-code still has to prove itself to some extent. This will get easier as the technology evolves and finds its place in the larger realm of software development. The more hands-on experience developers can get with low-code development platforms, the more they will see the potential low-code offers. As low-code user communities grow, they’ll also have a greater voice in where low-code should go from here. Both technologies are bound to undergo significant changes in the next decades—changes that will hopefully bring about even greater interoperability and synergies.

Want to see for yourself how low-code can simplify application development? Sign up for a free development environment through Appian Community.

1Information Age, On the down low: Why CIOs should care about Low Code, Anatoly Belaychuk, July 2015, accessed on (Mar 28, 2022)”

Date: April 22, 2022

Susan Coleman

Content Marketing Manager, Appian

Susan Coleman has been working in the enterprise technology industry for over a decade. At Appian she writes on topics related to low-code, ranging from automation technologies to application development platforms, process mining, and more. Prior to her role at Appian, she developed product and strategy content at SAP.

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