This quote from Marshall McLuhan has always resonated with me, giving a healthy reminder to all of us about the two-way relationship between man and technology. As an example, the invention of the computer has altered the ways in which we humans behave, think and even feel. Our digital society today is the result of a long (yet finite) string of tools originally invented for a specific purpose.
The further along we move on the timeline of those inventions, the harder it becomes to imagine where these different elements of our everyday lives actually originated from. These tools continue to shape their makers, as well as evolving into whole new shapes.
Giving a new shape and context to an existing technical capability can unlock surprising new use cases. As an example, a network enabled desktop PC computer from the 90s would have been perfectly capable of processing much of the content that Instagram today has. Yet the fact that we weren’t able to take that computer with us everywhere we go, nor capture images in digital format with an integrated camera, meant that a social media tools like this was unlikely to catch on.
The smartphone had to happen first, but it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what Instagram for Windows 95 would have been like. Check out this creative work by Misha Petrick:
The shape of our tools is an important factor that changes the way we assume technology can and should be used. This is very much true also for the business applications that organizations choose or develop for their employees to work with.
Power Apps come in many shapes & sizes
When talking about the disruptive powers of Microsoft’s low-code application platform, Power Platform, it can be challenging to paint the right picture into the minds of the audience. The platform itself is just an abstract set of cloud services that can be used for building pretty much anything the organization needs. But it’s not a readymade app in itself. It doesn’t do anything at all, before an app maker brings the capabilities to life – by giving it a shape.
Generating a simple Power Apps Canvas app from an existing data source is so easy that most business people could probably not believe it. Let’s say that you’re managing your sales opportunities in a cloud based CRM system that offers API connectivity to Power Platform. It doesn’t take all that many clicks to produce a basic 3-screen app for managing these same records in a smartphone friendly UI:
After the initial excitement of this “generate from data” capability has been consumed, we need to broaden the horizon of possible app scenarios. Sure, it’s neat you can do CRUD operations to a single database table in the cloud, but real-life needs for apps are rarely that straightforward.
Okay, sometimes they are almost like this. Still, the generated default app just scratches the surface on the many different shapes that low-code based tools can actually have.
Showcase of Power Apps we’ve built
Whenever you’re able to show an example of an app that’s at least a bit like the one the customer has in mind, the envisioning process is accelerated considerably. This is why we’ve started publishing a showcase of the apps we’ve built at Forward Forever on the new App Gallery page:
Instead of lengthy descriptions found in traditional customer success stories, the App Gallery aims to serve as a place to quickly pick up ideas and inspiration from the Power Apps, Power Automate flows, RPA processes, reports and other Power Platform elements we’ve used in the real world.
One key takeaway from our App Gallery should be that there’s no one predefined shape for Power Apps based tools. The context and the business process determine what the optimal layout and feature set of the app UI should be like. The graphics don’t need to be super flashy (after all, these aren’t consumer facing services but rather internal tools) but you should still spend some time optimizing the user experience with attention to the detail. Low-code doesn’t & shouldn’t mean low usability.
Be sure to check back for more examples we’ll be adding to the App Gallery as we develop new solutions for our customers – and for ourselves to use, too!
There’s more to Power Apps than meets the Canvas
The one thing that often isn’t very obvious to organizations who are exploring Power Apps is the fact that there are several different client technologies bundled into Power Platform. In the first example of opportunity management, we were looking at the Canvas Apps client type. However, with the exact same licensing investment into Power Platform, you could also be using a Model-driven app.
As the name suggests, the shape of these apps is largely driven by the data model used in the business process, rather than the task-driven UI found in Canvas apps. Because of this, the features that Model-driven apps can automatically “generate” on top of the underlying data model are much more extensive. Here’s an example of what our company, Forward Forever Oy, might look like when recorded into a Power App:
“Heyyyy, wait a minute! That UI looks strangely familiar. Isn’t there something similar in the Dynamics 365 products?”
You’re absolutely correct with that observation. The client technology for Model-driven Power Apps is the same platform used in the first-party apps built by Microsoft. If you were to purchase a Dynamics 365 Sales Enterprise app license, you might find yourself looking at a user interface like this:
Both these apps are powered by the data platform known as Microsoft Dataverse. They have an out-of-the-box responsive UI that is partially derived from the data model of your business application’s underlying database. Their navigation, search, views, filters, charts, dashboards and various other features needed for browsing through and managing a large set of structured data all come the with the no-code package of a Model-driven business app.
The fundamental differences are something you can’t easily tell from the UI screenshots. The first app is the free RapidStartCRM solution built by the MS partner Forceworks, leveraging tools included in the Power Platform. You can run it with a Power Apps Per App license that starts at $3/user/month via volume discount offers. In fact, the same license would also cover the first Opportunity management Canvas app, if you choose to create one for your users.
The second app is shaped, supported and maintained by Microsoft. The features in it cover many more sales management scenarios, often aimed at enterprise customers with complex processes. The platform based features are increasingly augmented with Azure based services that integrate with the business data and offer “packaged AI” to make the app work smarter.
Choosing the right tools to shape your business
Your organization with its units and teams is likely to encounter a variety of business problems where there isn’t a packaged app for that. If the process revolves around a limited set of very specific tasks performed repeatedly, Power Apps Canvas apps is a logical client technology to use. You’ll be able to create a “pixel perfect” user interface with only those things your users need and nothing else.
If, on the other hand, you expect the same business data to be captured, viewed and updated through a multitude of different use cases and user groups, you should consider a Model-driven Power App instead. While you won’t be able to modify the UI nearly as much as with Canvas apps, your users will get access to a consistent set of application features right out of the low-code box.
Especially if you expect the data model, processes and business requirements to evolve rapidly during the app’s expected lifecycle, it’s better if you don’t have to own each pixel, every button and all the actions. Complexity has a way of creeping into any business application. Sure, your first PoC may seem small & manageable, but don’t underestimate how much effort it would take to replicate Model-driven features in a Canvas app if the project becomes a success and gets deployed in several teams across your organization.
The two takeaways I want to leave you with are:
First: try to envision the data and processes of your existing systems in a whole new context and a different UI. Just like the concept of Instagram would not have been very appealing on a beige PC box running Windows 95, your existing enterprise systems might be able to support plenty more use cases when coupled with modern low-code technologies.
Second: don’t decide upfront that “this is how our app should look like” and lock yourself into a specific technology or UI paradigm. With low-code tools in Power Platform, it can be very quick to create fully working prototype apps instead of static wireframes. You’ll learn a lot more about the true optimal shape of an app when you can interact with real data, rather than just looking at pretty pictures.