It’s easier than ever to create digital applications like websites or project trackers, without writing a single line of code.
Those on the ground — who are in the arena — are designing solutions to their community’s problems with some internet sense and a desire to create a better way of doing things. It’s the rise of arts & crafts or a return to vernacular architecture where the new maker generation can use the building blocks of the digital age, all the complexities of servers, protocols, and code humming in the background.
The barrier to creating apps is lowering, and there are an increasing number of tools to choose from. Many tools have gone down the “app builder” route, while a few — like Coda — have bet that the most approachable and flexible surface to create online is something we’ve all been using since the computer came out: the document.
Since there are so many no-code tools to choose from, we developers recommend the following evaluation framework using the four core areas of , , , and .
Interface through the internet
Many no-code tools allow you to design your content in a compelling visual, accessible to anyone on the world wide web.
Content: How do you create and spread great ideas? The most effective ideas are shared through artifacts like the written word, pictures, video, audio, and diagrams. From the Constitution to the latest TikTok remix, humans have found all sorts of mediums to get their points across. No-code tools allow users to drop whatever they want onto the canvas and arrange it most compellingly for any device. It is commonly referred to as WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get), which differs from having to code the content and then render it later to get the intended result. Coda has canvas, pages, embeds, and layouts for makers to form their thoughts and intentions in any way possible.
Interaction: Beyond static 1-way content, we enter Web 2.0, where there is dynamic interaction between the application and users, probably what you associate with the internet of today. In Coda, you’ll find building blocks like:
- Buttons that take action such as sending emails and adding content.
- Controls where users can adjust settings or dynamically change visuals.
- Reactions such as the social media staple of liking, and forms for entering information.
2-way content — information and visuals where users can interact and have conversations and build community with each other — is more engaging and creates more value (user-generated content platforms like Twitter > 1st-party content like a static newspaper).
No-code tools enable you to build apps that give users the ability to create, read, update, and delete data (see CRUD) — from finding the best restaurants in your neighborhood to the progress on the team’s goals.
Databases: No-code tools either integrate with — or have built-in — databases so that you can structure information. The key is to have an easy-to-use relational database that you can directly interact with. In Coda, you’ll find tables with columns/field types/attributes such as text, number, people, date, and select list so that users know what each is used for and can easily input, edit, and view that information.
The second part is linking tables with each other. In a social media app like Twitter, behind the scenes, there are a bunch of connected tables that hold information, such as a user table with all the user information and a tweet table that associates the tweet with who said it (the user table). Likewise, in business operations, a project may connect to a team, a contact to a company, or a goal to monthly metric updates. In Coda, there are lookups that bring tables together. You can always view any table across a doc — like you’d use SQL to query.
To learn more about this topic: Matt Hudson’s Tables, Not Spreadsheets
Integrations: Most modern apps talk with each other to increase their utility. Have you ever used your Gmail or social media login for a new service? Behind the scenes, even apps like weather.com connect to a data source that the product developers don’t create or own. Apps talk with each other through an API (Application Programming Interface), and no-code tools offer the ability to connect your app with other apps to increase the value of your service.
Coda does this through Packs, bringing instant connection to apps like Gmail, Shopify, Slack, Jira, Strava, Salesforce, and many others. If you’d like to connect to an app but don’t see it, you can create your own with a little bit of code (technically, this is low code) with the SDK (Software Development Kit).
Take actions: No-code tools provide some sort of programming “language” where you can tell the tool what to do for you: query data, automate tasks, calculate, and do things through logic. They come in two flavors, and most tools include both:
- Visual builders: Drag and drop mixed with connectors or form-like experiences guide you in building some sort of structure or chain of commands. Coda’s automations work like this, creating an experience that prompts you to set up triggers and actions: “When something happens, then do this.” For example “When you change the status to Complete message the project team.”
- Formulas: Many no-code makers say that Excel is the most popular no-code tool (even though the company that created Excel doesn’t call it that!). A key part of any application is to calculate, and Coda uses formulas like spreadsheets — such as sum, count, and if — to calculate.
Living development environment
No-code tools lower the barrier to getting your MVP / Prototype out to your team or generally available in the market. Essentially, the investment and value realization gets closer, the loop between product feature launches and user feedback gets tighter, and innovation cycles spin faster. This is how new products enter the market, and businesses scale during hyper-growth.
Where you build the app influences the time it takes to launch, and for no-code, the application building and launching interface is in the same place, making it simpler to create and easier to collaborate in. For coders, the closest example is the IDE (Integrated Development Environment) which bundles most aspects of development to production workflows.
In a living, breathing document surface like Coda, there is no difference between development and production. It is, at this moment, what it is; it moves forward as you are building. There are no releases to hold you back or buttons you press. If you ever want to go back, there’s version history keeping track of the development.
And because the app exists where the building blocks are (it’s all a doc!), you suddenly bring a collaborative layer into the development surface. Invite collaborators to co-create with you, then invite users by just clicking “share” like any other digital document.
When investing in a no-code tool, we want a thriving community of makers who are passionate about creating solutions, warmly invite newcomers, and serve each other by openly sharing progress and challenges. This collaborative ethos is seen in the broader no-code community. A good example is #buildinpublic.
- Forum for connecting. Like Stack Overflow for developers, no-code tools create shared spaces to have conversations whether it’s using a tool-moderated platform like Discourse such as community.coda.io, or more casual interactions on Discord, Slack, Reddit, Twitter, or YouTube.
- Open source: The early tech companies like IBM, Xerox, and SAP were closed source. They innovated internally and never shared their proprietary trade secrets. Then came new communities who openly shared what they were building on social code sharing sites like Github — Google and Amazon would build on that stack. Instead of keeping the new versions to themselves, they would share back, creating a flywheel of value and collaboration that spun faster than ever. The same is happening in no-code with folks openly sharing templates, hacks, and solutions. Coda’s Gallery (coda.io/gallery) has great examples of this: John Doerr’s Measure What Matters OKR template leads to Brex’s Quarterly Planning that Doesn’t Suck inspires Pinterest’s Pyramid OKRs, then Robinhood remixes it with the Solutions Studio for their entire company.
No-code tools are growing like crazy: there have never been so many options for creating your own applications for business, small team, or personally. With the proliferation of these tools, finding the right platform to invest time and money is harder. Determine your needs and how they fit into the four core areas of a no-code tool — interfaces, data, development environment, and community — and you’ll find the right fit.