Citizen Developers as Innovators

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
May 17, 2021

“Innovation happens when people are given the freedom to ask questions and the resources and power to find the answers.”—Richard Branson

While Gartner coined the concept of a citizen developer about a dozen years ago now, this past year has accelerated the maturation of that term and clarified its meaning. The global pandemic has really forced organizations to become very specific and mindful about their business goals, as well as the outcomes that are necessary to meet those goals, which have become both more acute and less specific.

Individual groups within an organization might feel a deep pull to take greater control of the achievement of business goals. Organizations are increasingly seeing citizen development as a fundamental way of enabling the realization of their business goals, while enabling and motivating their workforce during very challenging times. However, citizen development is not without its own set of struggles, nor is it a magic bullet. The no-code platforms that enable citizen development have become easier to use and more prevalent. Plus, their ease of use has actually brought citizen development—as well as what it is and what it is not—into sharper focus. If anything, it has become even clearer that citizen development is more of a mindset than an actual role or tool.

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So what is a citizen developer anyway? Is the mindset of a citizen developer critical to innovation? Gartner says, a citizen developer is “a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others, using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT” (Information Technology). Okay. That seems pretty clear. As I read this definition, it became apparent that a citizen developer is a business user rather than a full-time, professional software developer. Business users not only can identify business challenges they’re currently experiencing, but can now—through the use of no-code software platforms—actually build applications to solve these problems themselves!

Collaborative Workspaces and Citizen Development

The very real shift we have all seen in digital, collaborative workplaces over the last few years has really accelerated in the past year. So how does this affect the citizen developer? It is evident that organizations need to be able to accommodate citizen development if they expect to meet their own goals. However, a stigma still exists regarding the citizen developer mindset because the common narrative has been that a citizen developer is some sort of rogue individual—or group of individuals—who wants to demolish any sense of governance that would dare to tell them what they can and cannot do. This romantic view of business anarchy is simply not true. For the most part, the citizen-developer mindset requires working within the framework of an organization to get work done faster, not working outside of or against the organization.

It is true that, in a traditional business organization, many view the IT group as a hurdle to overcome at best or a hard stop at worst, which continually blocks the ability of the business to accomplish their goals and actually get stuff done. In the end, people just want to complete their work as simply as possible. However, this is not always possible in such a business organization for very good reason that IT needs to have some control over the tools and processes the organization uses. IT is responsible for crafting and deploying policies that ensure people use the applications and platforms they’ve chosen for the organization, as well as for protecting the organization from security threats and other liabilities.

What About Innovation?

Now that I’ve described what a citizen-developer mindset is really about, we need to consider what this mindset does for innovation? Since citizen development is born out of constraints, would that level of constraint hinder innovation? However, as Pabini Gabriel-Petit describes in her column “The Role of Constraints in Design Innovation,” constraints are often just what innovation needs to actually happen. Think of them as creative tension. If we remove all constraints, we tend to choose the solution that seems easiest.

Despite all the talk about citizen development and the empowerment or disruption it can cause within an organization, the applications that organizations are actually building as a result of this mindset often get overlooked. While a lot of these applications certainly are just extensions of Excel spreadsheets, citizen developers are building many really innovative applications today because, by applying constraints to the business, you stir up innovation. People are really good at identifying challenges that get in the way of productivity and finding solutions that help them be more efficient. Without the citizen-development mindset and tools, employees would generally request a function or capability from IT. As anyone who has gone down that path knows, it’s a path that is not generally easy to navigate. Plus, that path is certainly not the quickest one, which, in the past, has caused some tremendous clashes between IT and the business and eroded trust within many organizations.

It is this clash between business needs and IT that has catalyzed the citizen-developer movement. While it’s true that an organization faces issues with citizen developers because of their often limited application-deployment knowledge, many of the platforms available today have mitigated this issue. The bigger threat to the citizen-development mindset and innovation arises when the business is myopic in the way they view the problem they are trying to solve and either do not or are unable to link it to the broader organizational strategy.

To minimize this problem, IT needs to partner with citizen developers. Truly empowering citizen developers and their mindset within the organization—rather than just providing a set of tools and sending them off on their own—ensures a healthier partnership.

Embracing the Change

The citizen-development mindset is not going to fade. Quite the opposite, as business problems evolve and become more complex and platforms become easier to acquire, master, and use in producing applications that empower and advance useful solutions. Be open to change. As designers and innovators, we can set really good examples and help the business part of the organization and the IT part of the organization work more closely together to achieve the desired business outcomes.

The citizen-development mindset is healthy for innovation and helps organizations to meet their goals. In the next year or so, as we all prepare to return to a different way of working both internally and externally, it is vital that we all adopt the best mindset for achieving the outcomes that we need to achieve and innovate in our approaches. 

Vice President, Client Innovation, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsAt Pegasystems, Baruch helps global clients develop new ways of streamlining their operations, improving their customer experience, and creating real transformations—digital or otherwise. Previously, during his 12 years at Pegasystems, Baruch led their global User Experience team and served as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in their delivery of user-interface design and user experience to customers and partners. He has led and participated in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries. Baruch earned his Bachelor of Arts in Professional and Technical Writing and Philosophy at the University of Hartford and his Master’s of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Business.  Read More

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