The questions I most often hear from our customers who are considering low-code are, “What are low-code platforms’ limitations?” and “Is this technology capable of building customer engagement applications?”. And I must admit — these are quite understandable concerns. Knowing that the idea behind low-code is to build applications from predefined components, we tend to imagine generic, old-fashioned screens with limited interaction capabilities. So, is it true or is this just a myth? Can we use low-code to build beautiful, intuitive, interactive solutions that will increase customer satisfaction and gain users’ loyalty?
During a project for one of our customers, we were facing the same question. Our low-code platform of choice is Mendix for this project. Of course, we are aware of how to style Mendix applications, in both web and mobile approaches. We have an in-house team of UX specialists who help us build faultless graphic interfaces, and UI developers who specialise in implementing them — nevertheless, the requirements still proved challenging. We were asked to build a consulting platform that will allow for the preparation, management, and the analysis of results of a complete consulting programme offered to specific types of companies: from medium to large.
The pandemic forced the company to run their activities remotely, but the new solution was meant to only move the ‘as-is’ process to the Internet, but to also bring the user experience to the next level. The platform was intended to be an asset, complementary to the exceptional level of service provided by our international consulting company client. The solution had to support the running of remote workshops with real-time team collaboration, online brainstorming sessions, and team exercises. And we had to keep in mind that it should be capable of accommodating dozens of users and that the workshops would, at times, be run in parallel. We also assumed that the data volume will significantly increase over time. And of course, the system had to have a beautiful and user-friendly interface. A piece of cake!
We started with a prototype, built using out-of-the-box Mendix components. We styled the components so they closely reflect real-world tools like a whiteboard with sticky notes. The real-time interactions were limited to the selected team exercises. The first version of the prototype was released in just 3 weeks and allowed us to validate the idea with end users and improve the user journey. At the next step, we replaced two Mendix features with custom-built components to support the scalability and flexibility of the solution. To extend the real-time team collaboration capabilities, we integrated the solution with Firebase (a toolset that provides ready-to-use services, which facilitate web and mobile app development). We built new features but also improved navigation, added tooltips, and a reference dictionary. Finally, we spent some time polishing the look and feel to reflect the modern, dynamic, and professional character of the company.
So far this may sound like an ideal, fairy tale project when, in fact, it presented its own set of unique challenges. We were under time pressure — the first consulting workshops were already scheduled. Additionally, we were developing a truly innovative product for our customer, who wanted the solution to help them become a trendsetter in their market sector. Some of the concepts needed to be validated before they could be released. Some of the screens we built turned out to be too complex. Certain requirements came up at the very last minute. But thanks to the remarkable speed of low-code development and an agile development approach, we were able to refine and extend the system to find a better solution. And we managed to get everything done before the deadline.
The final product was built in approximately 6 months and includes:
- An environment to lead online workshops with predefined, customisable group exercises,
- Customisable customer surveys,
- An online academy with multi-media training materials,
- A graphic, interactive representation of results,
- Licenced user registration and access management,
- An administration panel allowing for the configuration of platform features.
To date, the system has already supported over 80 workshop sessions, during which over 600 customer ideas were analysed.
So, what are some of the key challenges when building customer engagement applications? How can they be addressed with low-code?
Customer-facing applications are the storefront of a company, so it goes without saying that they should look professional and work seamlessly across various devices. But it’s about more than that. Perfect product design must consider usability and accessibility; it should reflect the company's brand and be adjusted to the targeted group of customers. In Mendix, we can use a straightforward, dedicated tool (“Appearance”) or the more powerful SASS stylesheets (SCSS). A professionally styled Mendix web or mobile application is impossible to distinguish from applications developed using the traditional approach. The library of Mendix’s ready-to-use components is extensive and extendable, nevertheless the final product will reflect developers’ choices. Everything can be done in diverse ways. The most typical screens can be autogenerated or built from bigger blocks (e.g. out-of-the-box grids) in mere minutes, but we would only recommend doing this for the backend and the administration views. Customer-facing views can be built from smaller pieces, allowing for more attention to be paid to their behaviour and look, but still with significantly less effort than in traditional development. While much can be achieved with out-of-the-box components, custom components may be required where specific behaviour or performance requirements are critical.
Streamlined user journey
This aspect is incredibly important. Internal users can be trained to use specific tools, but customers need a detailed walkthrough of the entire user story. Because at the end of the day, an unintuitive solution simply won’t be used. It is the UX Specialists’ and Business Analysts' responsibility to design exceptional user journeys — the techniques applied to accomplish this are the same for low-code as they are for other technologies. But there’s good news! Even if the first version of the solution wasn’t perfect, it’s likely that significantly less time was lost on implementing it than if it had been developed using the traditional approach.
The foundation of customer engagement applications is communication, and it’s one of the most common reasons users open an app. Especially during the pandemic, when face-to-face communication is more difficult to come by. Chat, voice or video connections, trouble ticketing, real-time collaboration, integration with social media are only examples of features that can make your solution more attractive. There are many off-of-the-shelf tools that can support communication, so it’s worth considering integrating with some of them. Everything takes a bit of time and effort, even low-code, so perhaps there’s no point in reinventing the wheel.
Nowadays, customisation is the gold standard. We’re different, we have different habits and wants, and we expect our tools to adjust to meet our needs. Can a Mendix application give users the possibility to customise their views, create their own dashboard, and save their preferences? Of course it can. The features may need a bit of work, but the development will still be much faster.
We can easily estimate the number of internal users, while having control over how many of them will use the system, as well as how often and when they do so. With customers, it’s a different story. The last thing we would want would be for our technical solution to impede our clients’ company growth by limiting the number of customers that can use their applications. So, when choosing a low-code platform, we should assess its scaling options. A Mendix application can be hosted in the Mendix Cloud, other clouds, or on-premise. In terms of the Mendix Cloud, the Mendix runtime instances can be scaled horizontally by adding more instances, and vertically by adding more memory for each instance. But scaling capabilities don’t exempt the delivery team from having to design and implement a solution that is fit-for-purpose.
Building a client-facing application that aims to gain customer engagement, and that best represents a business or organisation is not an easy task. The key is understanding what needs to be considered and appreciating that, even with low-code, sound design and engineering practices from a multi-disciplinary team are crucial to the success and adoption of an application. When using low-code, sometimes we need to resign from reaching for the easiest possible solution to create a more sophisticated design and behaviour. Nevertheless, building customer engagement applications in low-code is definitely possible.
If you’d like to identify low-code use cases within your organisation, download our latest “Solving Business Problems with Low-Code: Use Cases & Benefits” eBook.