Over the last few months, the businesses I've interacted with have fallen into two buckets: those that are financially secure but overwhelmed by the pressures COVID-19 has put on their businesses, such as those in the healthcare industry. Other businesses are pulling back due to the uncertainty, either through furloughs and layoffs, budget freezes and reductions, or a number of other cost-cutting efforts. The businesses that fall under the latter category are also overwhelmed because they have to maintain operations with fewer resources, in the form of people or funding or both. In both scenarios, low code/no code solutions could be a boon.
We can all agree custom solutions are typically expensive. Web applications, mobile applications and any other type of solution typically involve one or more developers, possibly a database engineer, a designer, a project manager, a business analyst, and one or more QA testers. All of those people together will cost you hundreds of dollars per hour. They will interview the stakeholders, gather requirements, create mockups and create the solution. The solution will get deployed to a staging environment, get tested, and if all is well, move on to production. And let's not forget the hardware and services costs. Servers, microservices and more may all add to your costs. For an organization with limited time or reduced budget, this all can be overwhelming and possibly not even feasible. What is a business to do?
Citizen Developers and the Power Platform
One such solution comes from Office 365. The suite includes a collection of apps designed to address a specific need. Combined, they can provide an end-to-end solution. If you need a web app or mobile app, you have Power Apps. Any business logic can be designed and executed within Power Automate. If you want to implement an AI driven chat bot, you can build your own with Power Virtual Agents and if you need to create visual reports and drive your business through data, you can use Power BI.
How exactly do these tools save a business time and/or money? Each of these tools are geared toward power users. Members of your organization with technical savvy can build different parts of a solution without much help from a team of technical people. While there may be moments when a developer is needed to fill in a gap, for the majority of the “development” a power user can manage.
Let's take a look at each of these in turn.
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Power Apps: Web and Mobile Apps
Power Apps gives you a canvas to build web and mobile applications. The left side of the Power Apps interface gives options to create different screens to include in the app and you can select the controls you want to add at the top of the interface. Loading data or adding an action to a button click can be achieved through the use of Excel-like formulas.
You have the choice of mobile or tablet layout with Power Apps. The image below is of the mobile layout. Both layouts can be viewed in a browser or the Power Apps mobile app. In either case, you don’t need to be a web or mobile developer to deploy a functional user interface.
Know this: Power Apps comes with a bit of a learning curve. You'll need to research the different functionality and find out how others solved similar problems.
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Power Automate: Business Process Automation
The primary responsibility of Power Apps is to show or collect data. If you are using SharePoint or SQL as your data repository, you can use Power Apps to create or update records, but it's complicated. Instead, I recommend collecting the data and passing it over to Power Automate. Power Automate's purpose is to design and execute your business logic. A simple example: a process that takes the data Power Apps provides, saves it to the data repository, and notifies the appropriate person based on the data it has been provided. In the case of a help desk ticketing system, your process may send an email to specific support engineers depending on the category or depending on the severity of the ticket. The process may send different messages or have different steps.
In Power Automate, you can use actions to define each step of your business process. Multiple connectors make it possible to tap into various systems like SharePoint, SQL, Excel and many more. When getting started with Power Automate, leveraging the available templates will help you get started quicker. Those templates tend to cover simple but common scenarios.
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Power BI Fuels Data Visualization
Once you have a Power App and a Flow (the name of a process run in Power Automate), you now have your solution. But what if you want to report on the data? What if you need to see at a glance the number and status of your help desk tickets? That is where Power BI comes in.
Power BI is a self-service data visualization tool. It allows you to quickly create data visualizations using various data sources. You can drop tiles onto the report with total numbers, pie charts, bar charts and more. The tiles are automatically interconnected, so when you click on a status in the pie chart, the other charts and totals adjust to focus on the selected status.
Power Virtual Agents for AI-Driven Forms
You are most likely familiar with chat bots. They are popping up in more and more places, from simple assistants on a website or more complex ones on your phone. Power Virtual Agents allows you to create your own bot, which you can use to provide simple responses to end users or to collect data to send off to Power Automate to start a business process.
A chat bot could help alleviate your help desk by handling smaller tasks which might arise. Let’s say someone creates a ticket to ask a common question like how to change their password. A chat bot allows you to automate the response, saving your support staff from spending time responding and allowing them to focus on more pressing issues.
These solutions also use natural language processing to understand the user’s response. Examples of this include dates and numbers. In a typical app, you need to specify the format to enter that kind of data. A chat bot can take language and determine what your intent was. In the case of a date, one typically provides a calendar control to allow users to select their dates but with a bot, a user can say something as complex as “two days from yesterday” and the bot will understand the user means to say “tomorrow.”
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What’s the Catch?
At this point, you're probably thinking, "If I have these tools, why am I paying high-priced developers so much to build solutions that take weeks or months to build?" The answer depends on a number of factors. These tools are great if you need to get something built quickly but there are times when you'll need developers to fill in the gap for missing functionality. Other considerations also come into play. If you are trying to build a solution that has a lot of transactions or needs to integrate with several systems, you may need to consider a more traditional solution.
Complexity is also a factor. If you need a mission critical application, going with the traditional development route makes sense. These tools are typically created in production and do not have a good development pipeline that allows you to push updates to a test environment before pushing to production. Pushing changes to multiple environments in this scenario requires manual steps, which lends itself to mistakes.
One More Tool in Your Workbox
The Power Platform is a collection of tools that allow you to build end-to-end solutions from the data collection to the business logic and reports. The ease of these tools makes the solution creation process faster as you are not writing code for every component on the page and you are leveraging configurable connectors to retrieve or update data in your data repositories. During a period when time and resources are limited, having these tools at your disposal can help you relieve some of the pressures caused by the pandemic.
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