Why we stopped choosing custom development

The epiphany that changed the way I look at creating digital products.

At the beginning of 2021, my team and I at Jack Studios set out to develop a new platform called App Your Game which would showcase African digital products by building a community in the African digital product space. Think Product Hunt meets Awwwards with an African context.

We put together a team of talented in-house and freelance designers and developers and started the all too familiar software development lifecycle. 9 weeks later, after spending almost 200 hours on design and development, we had a cutting edge website built with a robust backend and the latest front end framework… that could collect emails. At least it was pretty.

At this point, we were still in the early stages of the “agile” project and had no intention of slowing down our quest to build a complete custom system. Development was halted when changes at the company forced us to relook at what our offerings were. This was probably the best thing to ever happen to the company because of what came next.

One day during a brainstorming session a single Google search by one of the team members changed the way we would approach software development forever. We stumbled upon a website called Potion which takes a Notion document and hosts it online. Notion had long been the platform on which we’d run our entire business, from sales and proposals to project management to invoicing. With Potion, we could create and edit a notion document and see it live as a website instantly. No code required.

Custom development is when a system is built from the ground up with backend and frontend development frameworks. This approach allows full control over the features and functionality of the system. It also requires a skilled developer who is familiar with these frameworks and coding languages.

No-code development is when an existing platform is used to develop software without any coding. These systems usually provide a drag and drop approach to putting together interfaces with a limited set of features that can be added and customised. It can be used by people with limited or no coding knowledge like designers to quickly bring a system to life.

With App Your Game, we started with a custom development approach with full control over adding the features we thought we needed. This ended up taking a long time and diverted resources from our income-generating client projects. In the end, we didn’t even finish building the planned “phase 1” features.

Transitioning to a no-code approach with Notion and Potion came with set limitations which actually worked to our benefit as we didn’t have to worry about the intricacies of how the feature would function. It took a total of two days to get the system up and running and we were able to immediately validate our ideas and assumptions with real users.

We can’t completely call this “no-code development” however, some custom CSS was added to flair up the visuals. In the end, we were left with an unbelievable result, a website that fulfils all our needs at a fraction of the time and cost.

App Your Game as a custom developed site
App Your Game as a Notion powered Potion site

When a hardcore, passionate developer, and the dreaming product owner come together, they form a troublesome relationship. The product owner wants to get the best product to market and the developer wants to include cutting edge, custom technology from the start and convinces the product owner that it’s the best option. Since the product owner understandably wants the “best” option, the high price of custom development often leads to the following outcomes:

  • The product owner puts the project on hold until further funding is available.
  • The product has to severely compromise on features and functionality to accommodate the additional cost of getting a custom system off the ground.
  • A larger up-front investment is made on developing a product that is not yet proven in the market.

This is exactly what happened to our team, we were too busy riding on our high horse with “custom code” blinders on, to see what was right in front of us: A better way of getting a product off the ground. With a no-code approach, we were able to quickly test our concept and prove that people were interested in the system all at a fraction of the time and cost.

With a seemingly endless amount of no-code options, it can become overwhelming to decide on which platform to use.

  • Understand the limitations of the platform.
    Let clients know that their lavish feature ideas can be simplified to fit what the platform offers.
  • Be flexible.
    Don’t worry about committing to a specific platform. You can always switch to a different solution at a later point if need be. This is something that is much more difficult with custom development frameworks and technologies.

It might be easy to get carried away on this new no-code bandwagon and completely shun a custom approach. The fact is, custom-developed software should not always be avoided. It might be the better option when:

  • You’ve proven your concept and established a product-market fit.
  • You already have people actively using your product and coming back to it.
  • The product is generating enough profit to fund a custom development team. (Including an ongoing support and maintenance agreement)

If you are someone who’d like to get a product developed don’t lose hope if your budget is tight. There will always be a solution to make your dream a reality even if it has to be scaled down and tested first. Make sure you choose a development partner who is honest about the options available and offers the best solution for your idea, not the most expensive one.

If you are someone designing and developing products be open-minded. Sometimes it’s better to take a step back from industry best practices and validation from peers and look at all the options. Put yourself into the client’s shoes, would you want to pay that much for an unvalidated idea? In the end, you have the opportunity and responsibility of making someones dream a reality.

I believe that similar to how advanced manufacturing replaces manual labour with automated systems, software development is moving to a higher level where developers can focus more time on addressing the user’s problems rather than fixing a small bug. With no-code development, designers are being empowered to deliver fully functional products and iterate faster than ever leading to more user-friendly systems. This is a revolution that not only impacts designers and developers, it allows more dreamers to make their idea a reality and ultimately brings the users closer to the creators.

We are still in the early stages with App Your Game and are planning to roll out new features to the platform in the coming weeks. And by “roll out” I mean edit a Notion page. 😉

Designer & developer making some magic 🪄