Citizen Developers: A fresh approach to business applications

Getting people without programming experience to build apps for a specific business area is easier than ever before but just how far can they go?

Imagine if every time you wanted a meal, you had to involve a professional chef, giving a detailed explanation of exactly what you wanted to eat. There’s no doubt their expertise would often result in some delicious meals, but the process would become time consuming, expensive and inefficient.

For more than 30 years, this has been akin to the preferred method for developing business applications. A business user notices a problem or opportunity, then communicates their needs to an external or internal development team and an app is created based on their requirements. The preparation time is roughly eight weeks and in some circumstances, due to miscommunication, misunderstandings and delays, the final app just doesn’t hit the spot.

Application development can not only require a time commitment from all involved, but the bureaucracy and costs involved in getting the ideas signed off can often add a layer of frustration to the process.

A new way forward

As a result of these challenges, new technologies are emerging that mean business users can access an application development kitchen on their own desktop, bringing about one of the most significant technology trends forecast for the next couple of years: The Citizen Developer. Citizen developers are end users who create new business applications for using development environments sanctioned by the company’s IT department.

Traditionally, disruptive technology trends require two key attributes; a large appetite and a mature technology. In the case of 'citizen development', the taste for creating applications has been developing in enthusiastic businesspeople for some time, and now, the technology is reaching a point of maturity to make it possible. The emergence of cloud and its enablement of Application Platforms as a Service (aPaaS) has brought with it tools to turn the vision of 'citizen development' into a reality.

The technological approach

In the past, application development could not be done without significant technical expertise; developers had to set up multiple layers to even begin building an application, from identifying a server and installing the OS, to deciding on a programming language and running preliminary testing. This is all before determining what devices or OS the app will run on.

Now, the cloud is abstracting almost all of this process, allowing business users to bypass the need to set up physical infrastructure or application platforms, through Application Platforms as a Service (aPaaS) technologies. With aPaaS, applications are developed with simple and user-friendly web based development tools, and deployed on the cloud without the need for coding knowledge.

Through this technology, Citizen developers can use intuitive and easy-to-use visual development tools based on a 'drag-n-drop' functionality to create their own app that takes in a range of inputs such as spread sheets, files, forms, operating processes and reports.

For CIOs and IT managers, this trend raises obvious questions around compliance and shadow IT, however the important question is, ‘Who would you rather develop for your business?’ Through 'citizen development', apps are created by people who are intimately familiar with the organisation and have a strong incentive to improve its performance. If managed appropriately, the trend can have an enormous positive impact on efficiency, productivity and operational management.

Of course, not every app should be created by business users. There is still enormous value in seeking assistance from technical experts, particularly when it comes to large or complex projects. In other words, if you're only preparing a simple dish, anyone can handle it, but if you need to cater a six-course meal, then it might be time to call in the professionals.

The true power of applications will only become clear once the ability to make them can be put in the hands of business users. Everyone faces challenges or notices opportunities to improve processes when it comes to the work they do, and now, for the first time there is a viable and simple way for them to solve those challenges on their own.

Stephen McNulty is managing director Asia Pacific for Progress Software