Have you ever had a great idea for an app only to remember you don't know how to code nor know any coders? If so, that's probably when you relegated your app to the graveyard of great ideas.
I was in the same boat. I had a great idea for a personal finance app but didn't know how to build it. There are three traditional paths for people like me to launch an app:
Find someone technical to be your partner.
Hire a development team.
Learn to code.
After realizing that none of those options would work for me, I stumbled upon a fourth option.
4. Use no-code or low-code software tools.
These tools make it easy for anyone to build their own mobile app or web app without having to code. The best part is most allow you to get started for free.
I used these tools to build my app without code—and you can, too.
What are no-code and low-code tools?
When I began exploring how to build my personal finance app, I interviewed close to 30 software development shops from around the world. Every quote was more than $30,000, and some as high as $150,000.
In early March 2020, my co-founder (also non-technical) and I were close to writing a big check to one of these firms. By mid-March, though, the world had changed drastically as COVID-19 lockdowns spread across the world. That's when I took a step back and began researching alternative ways to build the app without spending lots of money!
I'd heard of no-code and low code tools at my previous job in software sales back in 2016 but mostly viewed them as tools for developers to code more quickly. When I started looking at ways to create my app, I learned that no-code and low-code software development tools weren't just for developers. Non-technical people—like me—could use them to build mobile and web applications using visual drag and drop components, like a LEGO set for software development.
We used these tools—all of which were either free for individuals or had a free trial—to build iOS and Android mobile apps with a single code base.
Planning to build your app
Before you select which no-code tool to use, you first must scope out the project. This may seem like an unnecessary step, but believe me when I say it is absolutely crucial. Scoping out your project will ensure you pick the right no-code tools the first time and speed up the development of your app.
Define the problem
Before building your application you need to understand what problem you're solving and for whom you're solving it. Even if you already have a solid vision in mind, don't skip this step.
For Ostrich, the app I built, this meant zeroing in on what exactly to solve in the personal finance space. There were so many possibilities that I found it overwhelming. So I took a step back to think about why I wanted to build this solution in the first place.
My parents got divorced because of money. In 2008 their relationship burst along with the housing bubble. They weren't aligned on their financial goals and ultimately it became too much for their relationship. This experience, combined with further research, enabled my co-founder and me to narrow in on the problem we wanted to solve: Help people achieve their financial goals.
That meant developing an application that helps users develop strong money habits by making it easy to set and achieve financial goals.
What are the key features?
Once you've narrowed in on the problem you wish to solve and your ideal customer, it's time to determine the key features your application will have to solve that problem.
I recommend starting by listing out these features. Put down everything you think you want in the application and what you think your user needs. The idea is to get all of your ideas on paper. Then in the next step, we'll narrow the list down while designing your application.
Examples for Ostrich include:
Connecting with friends
Take the features you laid out in the previous step to start designing the user experience. You don't have to be a designer—you can use pen and paper or even just write out in sentence format what the experience will be for your user.
This process helps you decide exactly what you need to build before you start developing. This will make it easier to pick the right tool and build a great product without code. Think about the features from your ideal user's perspective. They have this problem you are solving and then they stumble across your application. What happens next?
Is your application a mobile app or a web app?
What happens when they first download or sign up for your app?
How do they quickly learn how to use the application?
What immediate value do you want them to receive?
Begin answering these questions in a sentence format or, if you are a more visual person, use pen and paper to map out what the experience will look like for the user. The aim isn't to perfectly create the experience, just to identify the ideal flow between features and what information the user will see or need to input.
At this stage, clarity is more important than beauty or perfection. You are clarifying your vision for your application and the user experience.
Pick a tool and build
With your designs and feature list in hand, you are better placed to evaluate which tool or tools will best suit your needs.
There are plenty of great options out there that will help you build an application. Doing a quick web search will return a plethora of alternatives. Unfortunately, not all tools are created equal and you need to weigh your customization needs versus out-of-the-box functionality.
I used AppGyver, which has a free tool for solo developers and a paid version for enterprise companies.
Front end vs. back end
One part of software development I was not as familiar with was front end vs. back end. The front end is all of the visual elements you see on your screen. This includes texts, colors, buttons, navigation, and other key user interface elements.
The back end refers to all of the logic, data, and storage mechanisms for your application. The back end you can think of as the brains of your app while the front end is the pretty face. Both are important to building a successful application.
In the no-code and low-code space, there are tools for each development type and some that allow you to do both.
AppGyver included some basic back-end capabilities but was primarily a front-end development platform. This meant I had to find a separate solution to store data and be the brains of the application.
Luckily connecting different front-end and back-end tools together is quite simple. Using something called an API (application program interface) you are able to make the front end and back end talk. While an API may seem fancy or daunting at first, most no-code tools make it simple for non-developers to use APIs.
The simplest way to use APIs and connect your back end and front end is through Zapier. Zapier makes it extremely easy to use many different services or plug in unique features to your application.
I needed to create a PDF and send it to users after they submitted a form. I created multiple Zaps to automate different parts of the process. Here's how it worked:
When the user submitted their responses through the form, it created a new row of data in an Airtable base. Zapier recognized the new record was created and sent the relevant data to PDF Monkey. PDF Monkey created the PDF, and then Zapier sent it through Gmail to the email we had on file for that user.
I didn't have to code any of that. I simply set up multiple Zaps that automated the entire process allowing me to create complex actions with automation. Here's an example of a system of Zaps you could use for this process:
If you work with apps or software not included in this article, don't worry—Zapier works with thousands of apps. Head to our App Directory and search for the one you use, or browse to find the right solution for your needs.
Ask for help and find support
As a no-code builder, you will likely get stuck. If this is your first time building an application, you're almost guaranteed to get stuck. Does the tool you are using have good documentation that is easy to understand? Do they have great customer support and an active developer forum where you can ask questions? The more support and documentation that exists the better.
I found myself constantly asking questions on no-code forums and reading through documentation and tutorials. Frequently, I found that someone else had asked questions and easily found answers to get me unstuck.
Develop and iterate
As you build out features, test them! You'll want to continuously test as you go so you can catch problems early. This will save you headaches down the line as your application gets more and more complex, making it harder to identify what is causing the app not to work properly.
Next, recruit your friends, family, customers, and colleagues to play around with bits and pieces of your app to get real-time feedback. It will be much easier for them to catch bugs or issues you miss, and you'll get feedback about what features they find helpful or where they get stuck.
Launch your application
This is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking parts of building an app. How will your users respond to what you've built? If you've been testing throughout development you should have a good idea of the response.
Depending on the platform you used it may be very simple to deploy your application—possibly as simple as pushing a button on your builder platform.
If you built a web application, it should be fairly simple to launch your application. Mobile apps are more complicated since you'll need developer accounts with Google Play and Apple to launch in their app stores.
Luckily there is great documentation and if you need more, you're always a YouTube or web search away from getting the answers you need.
Use no-code tools to get started
In summary, you do not have to know how to code to build a complex web or mobile app. Using no-code and low-code tools you can build your application yourself without spending lots of money. Scoping out the design and core features of your application is key when deciding on which no-code tool or tools to use. Now it's time for you to go build!
This was a guest post from William Glass, the CEO and co-founder of Ostrich and host of the Silicon Alley Podcast. His mission is to improve global financial wellbeing. Ostrich provides a mobile app that helps people build strong money habits and achieve their financial goals. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.