Writing by Peter Hilton

Content before style and structure

How no-code tools let you start simple and avoid up-front design - 4 May 2021 #NoCode

Rough notes on paper in front of a computer

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Word processors give you a blank page that makes it easier to start creating than, say, programming languages that require up-front program structure or data type definitions. An earlier article on form builder value styles explores the idea of deferring definitions, taking inspiration from word processor paragraph styles. Meanwhile, other kinds of tools also give you a blank page where you can start content-first.

Word processors start with prose

Starting to write means creating text content. Word processor’s default styles free you from spending time on presentation or document structure, and also makes the tool useful for small documents that don’t require either. A word processor that required paragraph styles and a document outline before content would annoy anyone using it to make something simple, like a sign to hang on the door. Word processors let you start with content, and other tools start elsewhere.

Spreadsheets start with data

Many spreadsheets start as a list of data, and many stay that way. And while complex spreadsheets have their risks and horrors, the ease of getting started with one explains why companies have so many of them. In general, some software naturally starts with data, and only later adds text content and a user interface. Spreadsheets can act as database applications with a default grid-based user interface.

Prototyping tools start with a user interface

User-interface prototyping tools start with a more literal blank canvas. Tools like Figma and Excalidraw let you start designing software by sketching its user interface, with high- or low-fidelity mock-ups. For some kinds of software, the user interface captures the important design decisions, leaving relatively straightforward programming to build the application.

Workflow automation starts with a process

Some software doesn’t have a user interface, so you have to start somewhere else. When the essential complexity doesn’t lie in the data or user interface, process modelling might unearth the interesting design decisions. Workflow automation tools start with a process model, and let you (optionally) add data and user interfaces (usually as forms) to steps in the process.

Decision automation starts with a decision tree

Similarly, decision automation - overlapping with rules management systems - starts with the conditions for making decisions. Complex decision-making may use relatively simple data, and only need a straightforward forms user interface with good usability. Tools like BRYTER let you start by sketching a decision tree, where you can name decisions before adding data and the exact logic for the decision tree’s branching conditions.

No up-front design

Successful software tools have always made it possible to start writing or building without up-front design. They make it possible to defer design decisions, while first building in one particular direction. No-code tools that start with a blank canvas and defer optional complexity provides a better user experience than legacy coding.

Starting with small things that won’t scale reduces cognitive overhead and required effort. Meanwhile, optional capabilities to fill gaps in content, data, user interface and process let you turn small experiments into scalable automation.

Starting with an empty version of the final result lets you start simple, with a blank document, canvas, or grid. Whether you keep it simple remains up to you.