How To Encourage Citizen Developers

The concept of “citizen developers” — people without programming experience building apps for a specific business area — isn’t a new one, and it’s one obvious way of dealing with a shortage of experienced programmers. But assuming you have the right software, how can you encourage people to take on that mantle?

Phone picture from Shutterstock

Back in 2011, Gartner predicted that by 2014, at least one-quarter of apps would be created by “citizen developers” (or, more formally, end-user application development, EUAD). My own entirely informal observation would be that this hasn’t happened to that extent — in part because rather than building their own highly specific apps, many people have instead shifted to using a selection of broad-based business tools on their mobiles instead. If you can fudge together a working system using Evernote and Dropbox, why go through the app-building process?

However, if you need access to specific business data sources, then the “citizen developer” model can still be appealing. Here’s how Gartner defined the role:

An end user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.

That final clause is important. Citizen developers aren’t going to get very far if they can’t gain access to internal business resources, especially for rapidly changing data sources. That in turn means IT does need to place tight security controls on those data sources.

The other obvious requirement for a citizen developer is tools. That could range from very basic mobile app prototyping systems (such as Windows Phone App Studio) through to drag-and-drop developer systems such as Rollbase. A hyper-enthused citizen developer might contemplate using a “proper” development environment, but realistically few are going to have the expertise to develop apps in that way.

With those technical elements in place, who is likely to take on that role? “The best candidate for citizen developer is normally the business analyst,” Progress principal software engineer Susan Houniet told Lifehacker. “They’re the glue between the business and IT and they normally have domain knowledge. They know the requirements in the spec to give to IT, but they don’t have a coding background.”

But does this ever result in widely-used apps? Houniet points to the example of a Queensland Mortage Choice franchisee who built his own app to track loan processing. That proved so useful it was purchased by Mortgage Choice and supplied to all franchisees. Here’s a brief clip demonstrating the software:

None of this means that traditional programming is going to disappear. “There’s never going to be a time when we completely get rid of the developer,” Houniet said. “But if we can shift to 80 per cent drag-and-drop and 20 per cent coding, that will be a big improvement.”

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