Remember when being ‘digital-first’ or ‘pure play’ was a thing? Operating online gave a brands cache, reach, flexibility – and saved a hell of a lot on rental costs. Digital touchpoints allowed consumers to engage as and when they pleased with brands, and brands could adapt their communications and front-end accordingly. This was all thanks to teams of developers coding away. The complexity and often cumbersome nature of their work created the illusion of sleek, responsive websites and straightforward consumer experiences
And then Covid-19 happened. Retail community Bazaarvoice Network registered a 25 percent increase in page views of members’ sites in March 2020 vs March 2019. In the same month, registrations to use the NHS App increased by 111 percent. Netflix added a record 15.77 million paid subscribers globally in the first quarter. We headed online in our droves, in order to access essential services just as much as we did to enjoy housebound entertainment. Suddenly, what had appeared in the past to be an enjoyable or passable engagement with a brand, was under intense scrutiny. Brands were under pressure to deliver strong, engaging customer experiences at speed. This burden fell on teams of already stretched developers, many of whom were also tasked with design and content tasks, and who were under-resourced for the level of work needed.
Under pressure in the new normal
Brands now have to have an online presence and offer online services. These have to be accessible, relevant, continuously updated and consistent across channels. Businesses have to be quick on their feet, spin up new apps and websites, launch new services. If they can’t, they’ll quickly fall to a competitor capable of offering the kind of joined up, seamless experience customers either want (Netflix et al) – or desperately need (education, healthcare, benefits, food!). Of course, we’ve had the dotcom boom and social engagement phenomenon and digital disruption. But it’s the onset of the pandemic, the subsequent lockdown, and now the world’s gradual re-emergence that has been the real catalyst for digitalization.
It’s not over yet, either. To say the state of play for many global industries is volatile is somewhat of an understatement. While some sectors are opening up (travel, hospitality, education), many are just as quickly being forced to shut down (travel, hospitality, education).
When we couldn’t travel abroad, we sought the staycation. Between 1 January to 24 February booking site Independent Cottages, for instance, saw an average 40 percent jump in web visitors compared with 2019. Then Europe opened: Spain-holiday.com, the third biggest holiday rental site in the country, reported a report-breaking day of site visits. Following the UK government’s travel announcement at the end of July, however, one can imagine the brand’s web traffic looks somewhat different.
Almost all sectors face the ongoing threat of restrictions tightening again. New health and safety regulations, changes to employment laws, personal finance and benefits, and localized messaging are all changing rapidly. Yet in the midst of this turbulence, consumers expect the same streamlined experiences and brand interactions that they’ve become accustomed to.
DIY and digitalization for all?
Being digital-first or pure-play is no longer a niche and innovative thing. It’s a pre-requisite for businesses, public services, and governments. Developers are a critical part of this, equipped with the technical skill needed to create digital experiences. However, the need for every business and every one to digitalize has prompted a rise in DIY platform-building tools. Adopting tools like Wix and Squarespace have helped to democratize the web, allowing non-developer users to create and rapidly update websites using simple drag and drop tools. The downside? It’s not just the tools that are simple: the websites themselves are pretty basic too.
These websites also lack the control and governance tools required to manage their creation and operation. Without these tools build into a development platform, brands risk jeopardizing the security of website users and their data. Basic tools lack the roles and permissions features which enable developers, designers, marketers and agencies to have access to specific sites, components, and design elements. In absence of these, the situation is a free-for-all, with the risk of sites being created that don’t meet a brand’s security or brand identity guidelines.
At the other end of the scale are larger enterprises using different - but equally unfit-for-purpose - tools and approaches to website creation. Developers are still coding and play a crucial role in developing these websites and ensuring engaging user experiences, but at the same time they are tasked with doing design and content creation work. This is frustrating for many and an inefficient use of talent and resources by businesses. Having to do the latter two tasks means developers have less time to do coding work.
Businesses do need the ability to democratize technology and roles. But they also need to retain the ability to still set guardrails around brand, security, workflow and so on.
Low-code goes high-end
Fortunately the Wix way isn’t the only way. The development of basic no-code tools for consumers and SMEs revolutionized small-scale web development. Now, the sophistication of enterprise-level is extending these benefits across the entire business ecosystem. Organizations can digitalize at pace, adapt websites quickly and easily, scale to support fluctuations in web demand, edit and add content and launch new digital services.
Low-code tools feature visual interfaces – much like the drag-and-drop style of basic solutions – with the technology behind the platforms doing the hard graft of converting this into robust code. Templates can be created via a component-based design system that serves as a kind of pattern library for a team. Users can then create new content using the components from the library.
This doesn’t mean that developers will be out of a job though; quite the reverse. As more (non-technical) team members are empowered to create and edit websites themselves, developers can concentrate their time and effort on more complex, value-add tasks. After all, it’s these kinds of problem-solving tasks (versus updating content and design work) that drew many to coding roles in the first place.
Low-code is also gaining ground due to the investment and backing of some of the biggest names in the game. Google and Amazon now offer various low-code tools, and were recently joined in the space by AWS with its launch of Honeycode, a managed service that allows users to build mobile and web apps.
A future of superiority and prosperity
The traditional ways of working with developer bottlenecks means that larger companies often deliver at ‘the speed of their technology infrastructure’. Adopting enterprise-grade platforms that democratize tasks means that even larger companies can ‘move at the speed of their customers’. This is crucial when events like Covid mean that customer behavior and expectation are changing every day.
Open platforms are now giving IT teams the power to do more with less by providing enterprise functionality, easy-to-use web components and low-code site-building solutions that let teams re-assemble digital experiences as required without the burden of a total replatforming. Backed by open-source technologies, low-code tools are the future, opening up the market to all businesses and services to digitalize on-demand. And it’s just as well: delivering superior online customer experiences in this way will be a critical factor in business prosperity post-Covid.
Drew Griffiths, Cohesion CEO, Acquia