Building an application, LEGO style

A few years ago we were very limited by the number of non-programming tools that were available to us. But the world changes fast, and we now have a number of tools that let us build suprisingly complex applications with minimal effort.

Airtable and other applications are changing what you can build without touching code. Squarespace and Wix make it easy to build complex websites in a UI. SurveyMonkey, Google Forms make it easy to ask complex surveys, and some even allow for calculations and actions to be performed based on the results.

These non-programmer services have a number of advantages over a custom application.

For starters, they benefit from economies of scale. As multiple users purchase a subscription, the cost is significantly less than when building a custom application that will only be used by one organization. The subscription cost also covers hosting/operational costs, ongoing development, support, and maintenance. In many cases, the total cost of a multi-user subscription plan for most of these SaaS (Software as a Service) services is less than just the cost of hosting a custom application.

In cases where the requirements of an application can be covered by a SaaS service rather than a custom application, the SaaS option will normally be the preferred choice on cost alone. However, there are more advantages to the SaaS side than just cost.

By using a SaaS application as your minimum viable product (MVP), you can speed up development of your initial version significantly. If custom content is required, multiple non-technical people from your organization can enter content simultaneously.

Non-programmer tools can typically be tweaked far more easily and cost-effectively than custom applications, and this work can be done by a non-technical team. The skills learned when navigating these SaaS services can then be used by clients when they wish to design new applications in the future.

What to look for when picking a SaaS

Besides being able to accomplish the functionality you are looking for, there are a few key things to look out for when picking a SaaS service:

  1. Can the tool be extended through an API
  2. Can you get your data out of it?

If the tool has a rich API, it can be manipulated to produce far more complex and capable applications. For example, a Shopify storefront can unlock access to an application built in Airtable. Your application can use your company’s existing authentication/login platform to handle authentication and account management/permissions. We can (and often do) build custom micro-services that act as glue binding multiple SaaS products together, and build individual features that cannot be solved with SaaS options.

Most SaaS services have the ability to pull your data out of them. This is a critical aspect to consider when choosing a SaaS service. If you are able to export all of your data, you can launch with a non-programmatic MVP and move to a custom-built application down the road without loosing any customer data.

If you are interested in using these techniques to build your own application but want a little assistance, we’d be happy to help!