The Citizen Developer – Accelerating Digital Innovation

Narrowing the gap between what we need and what organisations deliver – or making it ourselves?

There has been much talk about how the emergence of the citizen developer accelerates digital innovation . Today, we see digital innovation talked about everywhere, but, as citizens – have we seen much improvement in our everyday lives, as a results on digital innovation? I think that the answer is: no, not really. My view is that the failure of digital innovation to solve everyday problems in our lives is to do with the persistent gap that exists between what IT organisations deliver, and what we consumers, as customers, truly need from for example, a bank, an insurance company, a mobile network operator, or an energy supplier. With Design Thinking applied, could we close this gap between IT and the end-consumer through empowering business people and customers to design enterprise apps that work the way they think and work?

Could this be digital innovation: by the citizen, for the citizen?

Beyond Web 2.0

Way back in 2004, Tim O’Reilly popularised the term ‘Web 2.0’, describing websites that enable non-tech people to generate content without the need of expert support. Since this time, we have seen the emergence of Citizen Developer-enabled platforms for Web design and publishing, including WordPress, Wix, Squarespace and Strikingly. However, despite the wide availability of such technologies for Web design and publishing, we still see IT operations clinging to the belief that Citizen Developers are not part of the mix – and at best, the only place that non-tech employees are permitted to create and publish content Web 2.0-style is via clunky Content Management Systems (CMS) and blog platforms.

Code, Low-Code and No-Code

When I talk about digital innovation, I like to segment the underlying choice of technology into three categories: Code; Low-Code; or, No-Code. It is No-Code where the biggest breakthrough in digital innovation productivity remains – and yet where the most Design Thinking has yet to be done!

Low-Code Platforms are important: they allow enterprises to avoid the cost and complexity of ground-up Code-based app development. Examples here are Appian, Mendix, OutSystems and Simplicité. But, in my opinion they are not really suited to Citizen Developers.

Code is always there, of course, even for a Low-Code Platform and what, ultimately, underlies a No-Code Platform. The central argument for Low-Code is: use visual, non-syntax development where you can – and when you hit the limits of visual development, you revert to Code.
For a No-Code Platform the quest is to enable the Citizen Developer. This is someone who cannot revert to Code, and wants to create and publish enterprise apps – all without writing a single line of Code. This is easy to say, but hard to do!

Citizen Developer Thinking

In pursuit of creating a No-Code Platform, I am working with a startup called Hatch Apps. Together, we are taking a different path to the late majority players who make-up the Low-Code Platform space. This is all about how we create an enabling technology that truly works for the Citizen Developer, and where Design Thinking informs a continuous process of creating and improving a truly No-Code user experience.

In following the principles of Design Thinking, we needed to start with the Empathize step. This meant identifying who a Citizen Developer is, or could be. We did not hide behind the vague, IT-centric language of talking about ‘tech-savvy’ users, and instead we wanted to remain true to who this ‘User Persona’ – the Citizen Developer – really is.

We think of the Citizen Developer as a real world business person, maybe an entrepreneur, maybe a manager in a large enterprise, maybe a subject matter expert in a small firm – and how they think, and how they would work in relation to creating a new enterprise-class mobile or Web app.

Three step process

Citizen Developer Thinking is non-trivial Design Thinking and here is where I like to apply three Design Principles to guide the creation of the No-Code Platform User Interface (UI):

1. Meaningful Journey

2. Fierce Reduction

3. Progressive Disclosure

Meaningful journey – When designing a next generation Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) app, the first thing to create is its journey. This is the path, steps or tasks that users will complete in providing a service, undertaking work, or solve a problem. With Lean Thinking at the heart of the design, this means removing steps or tasks that are wasteful or unnecessary. Therefore, this journey must be a Meaningful Journey: from the moment a user goes to the login page, to the moment they logout, when the task(s) or work is done.

Fierce Reduction – When users get confused with SaaS apps, it’s usually because what they are confronted with on a page view offers too many choices of what to do next. Often, there is no obvious place to go or action to take from a particular stage in what should be a Meaningful Journey. What’s needed is a fiercely reductive mindset: a way to eliminate everything on each screen that distracts from any action at each stage. This is Fierce Reduction.

Progressive Disclosure – When designing a Meaningful Journey and applying Fierce Reduction, it is better to have more clicks or swipes through pages of a SaaS app, than add too many options in any given page or screen view. This means that with a fiercely reductive mindset, you will have to engage in a trade-off between simplicity of page or screen view, versus the number of pages on a Meaningful Journey. This is ensuring that Progressive Disclosure is applied to SaaS app design.

Citizen Developer Empowerment

Even in the smallest of organisations, the IT department has responsibility for ensuring that digital innovation is delivered in a stable, safe environment. In larger enterprises, IT departments may be too remote from what customers or employees truly need, but they cannot simply be bypassed and all ongoing digital innovation turned over to Citizen Developers in a free-for-all.

No-Code Platforms must be part of a secure cloud infrastructure, where Citizen Developers are able to create new mobile and Web apps that IT professionals can approve and deploy. This collaboration between business users and the IT department removes the notion of ‘shadow IT’ or No-Code becoming a form of anarchy within the enterprise.

What also matters with a No-Code Platform is that it’s built with industry-standard underlying Code and runs on safe public cloud infrastructure, where choice of location enables support of specific, named country Data Residency. In our work here, these key questions are answered: building the No-Code Platform with React and Node.js JavaScript technology. The technology id running on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), which means it can be configured on country-specific instances to meet stringent ‘data residency’ requirements too.

By the citizen, for the citizen

I am at the beginning of our journey in participating in the creation of a No-Code Platform that truly delivers for the Citizen Developer. So far, the user experience (UX) design work shows just how challenging this goal is. What matters most to me is that our technology partners avoid creating yet another compromised Low-Code Platform, with the suspect caveat that users must be ‘tech savvy’ or where extensive investment in training is required. For sure, as we go on this No-Code journey, there will be a lot to learn and this will make us all better at applying Design Thinking in the real world. One day we hope we will be able to say that we have delivered digital innovation: by the citizen, for the citizen.

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