As a designer and coder for more than half my life, I’ve got something controversial to say:
I think no-code and low-code platforms are the greatest things to happen to the tech world.
And I’m not alone. The no-code web development company Webflow recently raised $140M, increasing its valuation to $1.2 billion. Other no-code companies like “robotic process automation” giant UiPath and application-building platform Unqork have upped their growth ante with multi-million dollar investments and multi-billion dollar valuations ($10.2B and $2.1B, respectively).
The impact of this revolution isn’t something that’s light-years off, either. Forrester projects the low-code market to top $21 billion in spending by next year, and Gartner says low-code application platforms will drive 65% of all app development by 2024.
But that’s not why I’m psyched about low-code and no-code platforms. After all, it may seem counterintuitive for a digital design company’s founder to embrace technology that empowers a 17-year-old kid with a basic knowledge of coding and a Bang-stocked mini-fridge to crank out pretty apps, websites, and transformational customer experiences.
Nah, that’s not what scares me.
A lack of progress is what keeps me up at night. What low-code and no-code do is democratize forward motion. This is good news all around — it’s a massive win for inclusivity. The gates are lifted, and digital literacy is available to all thanks to the accessibility and simplicity of drag ’n drop.
It’s also a shot in the digitization arm we all need to stimulate new opportunities and greater possibilities for even the most advanced engineers.
Expanding the Universe
John Maeda, the incredible technologist and designer, included in his most recent book, How to Speak Machine, a quote from AI pioneer Joseph Weizenbaum, which speaks eloquently to how I’ve always felt about being able to write code:
“The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which they alone are the lawgiver. No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.”
As a kid, there was nothing I loved more than jamming away on a project, coding until my fingers felt like they could fall off in, well, a Flash. But once that universe of potential and creativity is open, it’s impossible to put the genie back in. Plus, who would want to?
A handful of clickety clacks on the keyboard and magic happens. It runs the gamut from fun party tricks, like automatically turning the lights off in the house or animating a robot, to reinventing entire industries as companies like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix has done.
This has always been the coder’s credo: I can change the world because I write software.
While this is an empowering stance, it’s also elitist. The discipline of coding is exceptionally logic-minded, which means that you often have to shut off emotion. Success in the field favors those who make data-driven decisions.
No-code and low-code platforms widen the tent and expand the universe to include non-coders. This makes things like logic and stability more accessible while making room for new perspectives and talents.
The better people understand low-code, the more they can wield the power of technology. To connect. To tell stories. To automate. To change the world for the better.
Now the exceptionalism of meritocracy can give way to what I believe is a higher good: a more well-designed world.
And that raises the bar for all of us.
The Evolution of Expression
Low- and no-code enables people to create more, faster. Once upon a time, this was the domain of the 10x engineer — coders who are ten times better at their jobs than their colleagues. Former Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace reportedly said that these top engineers are 300 times better than the rest. (Eustace also broke the world record for high-altitude jumps, so you get why higher, harder, and more super-human is his thing.)
I get loving that superpower, and as I mentioned, it was all I did for hours on end back in the day. But now, if you told me I would never write another line of code again, I’d say fine.
Because ultimately, I wasn’t writing code; I was designing software.
Conversely, if you were to say you never get to work with technology again, I’d be heartbroken.
What we’re learning with no- and low-code is that the front end is the thing. Total customer experience is what matters above all else.
Airtable is democratizing access to how people collaborate and use data. Platforms like Zoho Creator and Bubble allow people to make business apps in a snap. Typeform makes creating surveys and forms super fun and easy. These, and platforms like them, enable humans to work in a better way.
The act of writing code doesn’t inspire me. The joy of expressing myself and designing experiences that move society further does. Inputs drive outputs, and outputs drive outcomes.
The endless repetitive tasks that we do every day eat away at the limited cycles we have on this planet. Using machines in the right order retrieves precious time, freeing us up to do more meaningful work.
And so, thanks to the advent of low-code and no-code platforms, engineers can spend their time creating new worlds rather than hassling with the mundane. Yup, even the most advanced among us can get caught up in doing what’s comfortable and safe vs. taking new risks. (Maeda brilliantly argues that we’ve moved beyond software eating the world — safety eats the world. We can do better.)
Systems evolve, and the ongoing quest is to find a way to balance polish with progress. Human beings are natural toolmakers — we’ve been using that skill to advance humanity since the dawn of time.
So, it makes sense in our digital era that we’ve evolved tools that make it simple for people to create visually appealing and technically sound online experiences. This is a natural progression that’s worth embracing.
Crack the Code of the New Experience Economy
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the most resilient job opportunities are the ones that you can do from anywhere. For example, while my nephew can learn the values of a solid work ethic and consistent routine working at Dunkin’, he could use the same cognitive load and energy to learn Zapier to create custom workflows and automations for small businesses. Or he could help people bring their businesses online using platforms like Squarespace Inc., Notion, and Webflow.
The more we can empower non-technical people with creative digital skills, the more space we free up for highly-trained specialists like engineers to solve larger problems like AI ethics and bias in systems design.
As for those old elitist coders (and I say that with love, as I used to be one of them) — you will be replaced if you don’t smarten up. Nobody cares that you’re using a tricked-out webpack setup with Tailwind and a complex continuous integration build stack anymore. The drag ’n drop builder just did what you do in a fraction of the time, and it’s already online and providing product-market fit.
The point is, when we move faster, we can learn faster. In the time it used to take to build the first round, we can already be iterating and improving. If you look at the top DTC brands — for example, Hims, Bonobos, Glossier, and Dollar Shave Club — you can see rapid evolution powered by technology that’s more and more accessible. Speed and learning and failing fast is what led to their multi-million dollar valuations and billion-dollar exits.
And so, the age of lo-fi validation for all is here. The ability to test-drive ideas is an excellent entry ramp for newcomers on the information superhighway. This means no more “collars” in the workplace — no white, no blue. For example, I can imagine in the not-too-distant future general tradespeople using AI to assist them with step-by-step instructions to fix a clogged drain.
This uplevels opportunity for people of all backgrounds, skills, and abilities. I believe creativity and mastery of learning itself pave the way to become a connected, design-enabled society.
For example, I love how Amazon and Stanley Black & Decker are focusing on adding cobots, robots, and smart automation and creating jobs for people without any programming experience to design products and services.
This speaks to a market shift that’s underway, where the old, low-paying jobs for unskilled laborers — say, working on an assembly line or picking and packing — can be done by robots. In the past, the people who would’ve done these jobs can now easily be trained, thanks to low-code and no-code, to add value and create businesses from the comfort of their own homes if they wish. So these new industries are creating other novel industries.
And that’s why I love no-code. Because there’s a level of strategy and sufficient sophistication necessary to simultaneously elevate experience and revenue opportunities. Industry 4.0 will be enabled with technology and only be limited by the application of human creativity. This is a massive win for inclusivity and ingenuity.
Like a domino effect, this will also push new and exciting opportunities to the surface for trained programmers. Anyone can create a website using Wix or another template program, but that doesn’t make it a sales-driving machine or brand-building vehicle. There’s a level of strategy and elevated insight necessary to uplevel the experience and revenue opportunities.
And so, the opportunity for contrast is there. The new power position is with the people who design the platform itself — as Stan Lee famously wrote for Thor:
“Whosoever holds this hammer, if they be worthy, shall possess the power…”
Think about it: we’re still talking about iconic designers like Steve Jobs, gone now for nearly a decade, and Dieter Rams of Braun, whose revolutionary designs of household items took hold in the 1960s and 1970s.
Their impact is felt like a network effect, and that’s the challenge for designers in the age of low- and no-code. Getting on the right side, where you both leverage the advances of the code-free world and advance the opportunities for brands to serve their audience better, is the goal.
There are projects that once cost $100,000 to build that now can be reasonably constructed on a budget 1/100th of the size. That’s a head-spinning paradigm shift.
The challenge for designers like me is to elevate our offerings to design demand for the next thing.
When you think about that, isn’t that the ultimate creative challenge? To crack that code, you have to be willing to let go of what you thought you do for a living and start living to design new solutions to today’s genuinely pressing problems.
This is what’s always on my mind. I’m curious about what you think about no- and low-code platforms. How are they changing your world? Hit me up in the comments.