“ Many citizens deal solely with government by filling in <paper> forms. Departments need to think more about the design and use of the form from the point of view of the user…This will not only make it easier to deal with government but will also save a considerable amount of taxpayers money.”
2003 Sir John Bourn, former Head of the NAO talking to Parliament
What is low code?
You might have heard people talking about low-code, or even be using it yourself. Low code is software that enables non-technical people to create user interfaces like online forms without needing to do any traditional computer programming or coding.
I attended an event recently where a supplier presented one of their key products: an off the shelf form builder. The product provided an admin interface, validation fields, ability to upload different file types, built-in logic as well as seamless integration to other services such as payments.
This was all available to the customer and able to be used without the need for technical knowledge. Each organisation could use their own stylesheet and have their own customised branding and logo, with extra premium features at an added cost. Hosted and easy to maintain.
Why it’s becoming so popular
At face value, this proposition is very attractive to local authorities and other heavily form-reliant organisations, who are often unable to recruit or procure technical experts in software development. Giving non-technical staff the ability to make changes themselves, without having to go through a slow and expensive change request with a supplier, is pretty empowering.
Why it’s not always that simple
But, as is often the case, it’s not quite as straightforward as it might appear. I would encourage any organisation thinking about buying something like this to think carefully about these 2 things:
- Price vs cost: make sure you consider not just the initial price of buying the product but also the set-up and ongoing costs. There will be annual licenses to pay for, and the costs of design and change – the latter could be significant
- Quality: off the shelf products are designed for generic use by generic users, so they’re unlikely to meet the specific needs of your users. Make sure you include usability testing for your external and internal users, be prepared to make changes now and in the future, and accept that things won’t be perfect
Price vs cost (or watch out for the hidden stuff)
You will need to consider several things:
- the ongoing price of the license, support costs and, in many cases, the cost of hosting the service
- the cost of development to get things to a standard that is adequate for its purpose and your users, and
- the cost of changing something
The costs and limitations of development
Low code solutions are often developed as closed systems (also known as proprietary). This means that you can only customise them to meet your specific user needs by going through the supplier, and maybe not even then. So any customisation will be at a cost – this could include things like integrating with your existing systems or designing some specific workflows – and you’re more likely to have to accept limitations.
Staff from your organisation will need to invest their time during the design and implementation phase. They will need to be trained and involved in developing and testing standards and establishing effective governance. The more effort you put in at this stage, the better your forms will perform with your users. But if your user needs change in the future, you may end up having to replace the entire system – and your investment in set-up, development and customisation will be lost.
This is a general issue worth considering whenever you’re thinking about using Software as a Service (SaaS). It’s why the Government Service Standard and Local Digital Declaration encourage the use of open standards. Open standards and systems ensure you don’t get locked into one supplier with a closed system, so customising your system or moving away from it are easier and cheaper.
Quality (or forms that work for you and your users)
Designing good forms requires craft and a lot of user testing. Forms are only good if they are usable for the person that’s providing the data, and for the organisation receiving it. Data needs to be complete and accurate, relevant and structured so the organisation can use it to make decisions.
To design forms you need to consider the design of the interface, including the interaction, content, format of the form fields, icons, buttons, error messages and so on. All of them need to be understood quickly and easily by the user so they provide the information the organisation is asking for.
A team building their own forms will have control over all of these, but if you’re using a low code form builder you usually won’t. In that case, the best you can do is some due diligence on their quality. Then you’ll probably need to accept some form of compromise.
A poorly designed form will increase calls to contact centres and processing time for the teams managing and delivering the service. So if you’re planning to buy a low code platform to fix your forms make sure you consider:
- the extent to which they meet your user needs
- how far you can customise them, and
- the cost and skill involved in designing good quality forms that work
Here are some great recommendations from Caroline Jarrett, a recognised expert in form design for the public sector, on how to design a form.
There’s real value in getting it right
Fixing forms is not just about buying the kit, and it’s definitely not easy or quick. But if you are able to fix them, it will save a lot of time and money for your organisation, and make life easier for the people who need to fill them in.
If you hire a specialist technical team to build your forms, you aren’t just getting technical expertise. You’re also getting design and user research expertise to ensure they genuinely meet the needs of your users and organisation.
Using a low-code platform reduces the technical cost of building forms, and can reduce the cost of designing them if it comes with good design patterns. But you will still have to put some effort into designing forms to ensure they meet your specific needs (and don’t forget about the implications of being locked-in to one supplier).
Think carefully about what kind of solution will provide the most value for you and your users in the short and longer term.
Let us know what you think
We’re keen to hear your thoughts about the pros and cons of low code platforms, please get in touch!