What Is Low-Code? A Beginner’s Guide

Author: Susan Coleman, Content Marketing Manager, Appian

What is low-code? Low-code allows you to program a machine through a visual interface, such as by drawing a workflow diagram. As the name suggests, low-code is a way to develop software using little to no coding. Instead of writing tons of lines of code using a computer language, such as Python, Java, or .NET, low-code allows developers to build business applications with the help of simple visual interfaces, similar to creating a flowchart or designing a website using pre-built components. This makes it a much more intuitive and human way of interacting with a machine than coding. Let’s take a closer look at how this works.

Even people with no hands-on application development experience probably know what traditional development looks like: extensive planning and requirements gathering followed by the actual coding, where specialized programming languages are used to write thousands or even tens of millions of lines of code—or more—depending on the complexity of the application or system being developed. 

Low-code platforms.

Building applications with low-code works much differently. The foundation for this approach is a low-code application platform (LCAP), also known as a low-code development platform (LCDP). The LCAP already contains the intelligence, components, and ability to translate visual input into the code needed to create an application. So what the software developer sees, instead of a blank screen where code has to be typed in from scratch, is a much simpler, graphical workspace.

Creating a process model.

When creating a business application with a low-code platform, developers map out the process the application is going to support within a process modeling view. As with a flowchart builder, the process modeler’s workspace provides visual elements for sketching out the process, including the following:

  • A selection of individual building blocks, or components, each representing an action,  task, or activity that needs to be carried out within the process. Some of these components come pre-built, so they can simply be dragged and dropped onto the workspace to deliver the functionality required within your application. Others require some additional configuration to carry out the necessary actions.
  • Connectors to guide the flow from one task or activity to the next.
  • Decisions, for when an activity can result in more than one outcome, such as routing an invoice to an approver when the total value is above a certain threshold or simply forwarding it for payment when the amount falls below the threshold. Decisions ensure that necessary steps and tasks are not skipped and the flow is not misrouted.

The components and connectors help software developers visualize the process steps as they relate to specific actions that will be carried out within the application, for example, adding a unique number to a new vendor account, or as mentioned above, obtaining approval for an invoice that exceeds a set value threshold. The components can represent both actions carried out by machines and activities that require human intervention. By defining the tasks and actions, connecting them in the proper sequence, and assigning them to either a human or machine to carry out, you can create a model of your process that clearly depicts the logic from one step to the next. You can then combine multiple processes to create end-to-end workflows. Examples of workflows include creating, routing, and tracking payment of invoices; onboarding a new hire; or creating a new customer or vendor account.

With your process in place in the modeler, you can start adding more functionality and user interfaces to carry out tasks and activities. Low-code platforms offer a wide variety of ways you can deliver this functionality, some still using the same drag-and-drop method and others requiring additional coding for customization. However, the use of code here is still minimal, making for much faster turnaround times for your development projects. 

Building applications with low-code.

Some examples of ways you can add powerful functionality to your business applications include the following:

  • Segmenting your users by assigning them to groups based on their job roles. LCAPs can manage security and access for user groups, depending on which processes they work with and in what capacity. Creating user groups also allows you to assign specific actions to those users, such as routing incoming IT help desk requests to the correct recipients, depending on the expertise needed to address the issue.
  • Creating decision rules that deliver certain actions or outputs, depending on the input gathered from people interacting with the application. Take, for example, an insurance company that sells homeowner’s insurance. Low-code can be used to quickly and easily create a form for prospective customers to fill in their information—such as the size and age of their house, its location relative to potential risks, and the value of the owner’s belongings. Based on these inputs, the application’s decision rules create an output that recommends the right level of coverage and price for the customer’s homeowner’s insurance.
  • Designing forms and other interfaces for users to enter and access information and view data, such as reports, pages, records, and dashboard visualizations. Interfaces can make use of decision rules, grids, charts, and a variety of other elements that collect and present information in a clear and user-friendly way. Here too, building interfaces is done by dragging and dropping the needed fields and components onto a workspace. If you need to customize your interface beyond what’s offered in the LCAP’s interface designer, you always have the option to access the underlying code to make modifications.

It’s probably clear by now that “low-code” can perhaps more accurately be described as “hidden code.” Low-code offers a secure and scalable method of application development that delivers many benefits when compared to high-code development, including increased speed and flexibility and lower cost and maintenance burden. An LCAP comes with much of the code already in place in the form of pre-built, standardized elements, including components and connectors, interface elements, and other tools that allow you to configure decision rules, visually impactful dashboards, and other user-friendly interfaces.

Want to learn more about low-code? Check out the sequel to this beginner’s guide for some more in-depth information on low-code platforms and the types of application functionality they deliver.

Posted: January 28, 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.

Low-Code Guide

Low-Code development is the way to build apps more quickly by reducing the need to code.