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What Is Citizen Development? Breaking Down the Basics

April 30, 2021


Business environments are changing faster than ever before, and business leaders are feeling the pressure.

Organizations are revisiting their business strategies and operating models to stay relevant in a highly competitive market. They are constantly looking for ways to deliver better customer experiences and address inefficiencies in their operations to optimize costs and gain new business.  Digital transformation is at the forefront of everyone's minds.

Businesses are looking for digital solutions that can deliver results fast and are agile to help them pivot when required. The demand for IT solutions is skyrocketing. This is putting pressure on the central IT teams who are unable to meet the demand due to high costs and unavailability of skilled professional developers resulting in IT backlogs and frustrated business units.

This is where citizen development comes in.

What is citizen development?

Citizen development is the process of non-technical users building and developing custom software applications for either their own consumption or for their team with minimal coding or no coding at all.

These applications are created using development methods and runtime environments that are approved and sanctioned by the IT department, which separates this from the concept of shadow IT.

Citizen developers are generally members of business units who want a solution for their unique problem and are ready to take advantage of new tools and applications to solve these issues themselves.

Since digital dexterity is on the rise, most employees have the potential to become citizen developers who can create applications on their own given the right tools. Currently, citizen development is most prevalent in departments like HR, operations and admin, R&D, finance, customer service, and others.

Why is citizen development on the rise?

Rising IT backlogs and the shortage of skilled professional developer is evident across organizations in all industries.  Industry research estimates that by 2024, there will be a deficit of 500,000 developers in the US.

On top of that, as technology has gained a more important place in our lives through the introduction of various gadgets and tools, there has been a rise in digital literacy. The ease with which employees can use and apply different features of today's technology is unparalleled, and it bodes well for introducing additional innovative tools. This is incredibly beneficial to companies as they can harness it to encourage employees to create the digital solutions they need.

This is where citizen development can help.

Citizen development provides a method for companies to address the IT backlog issue by enabling non-technical employees to create the applications they need without writing any code. As applications can also be created significantly faster, this saves time and money for the organization while allowing the IT department to focus on strategic ventures.

Citizen developers are business users and employees first, which means that they are constantly on the lookout for the best solution to a business problem instead of focusing on the technology they are using.

How have low-code/no-code tools helped democratize development?

As business users have become more interested in finding and creating digital solutions to their problems, this has led to a surge in creating tools specifically directed toward non-technical users.

Citizen developers don't have a wealth of knowledge regarding coding, so these new tools have built-in features to enable citizen developers to build digital applications with very little (low-code) or no-coding (no-code) at all. These tools are broadly classified as low-code no-code (LCNC) tools.

Low-code no-code tools provide an intuitive visual and graphic interface where users can assemble multiple "blocks" of pre-written code into the structure that they want, just like using lego blocks. 

By abstracting the code and assembling it into "blocks," these tools allow users to mix and match the elements they need, leading to efficient and easy application development. These tools can help in various industries and functions, including application development, automation, workflow management, business process management, and more.

No-code tools are geared strictly toward non-technical employees who cannot code at all. This enables them to diversify their talents and opportunities and reduce the burden on the IT department. Business users can easily use these tools to automate their repetitive tasks, eliminate paperwork and become more efficient. 

On the other hand, low-code tools are geared toward individuals who have some pre-existing knowledge of coding. Unlike no-code tools, low-code tools allow users to write custom code making it more flexible in customization. However, low-code tools need more governance as they are susceptible to security threats introduced through handwritten code by the citizen developers.

Low-code and no-code tools serve a different purpose and have managed to spur citizen development by providing efficient tools for both technical and non-technical users alike. This helps with democratizing development, as any employee can utilize these tools to create their own bespoke solutions, where earlier they would have had to ask the IT department to help. 

This also provides the citizen developers an opportunity to utilize their domain knowledge and personal understanding of problems that they face to create applications that solve very specialized issues in the industry. Solving such a problem would be more challenging for a member of the IT department due to a lack of in-depth knowledge of the business problems and their corresponding solutions.

A breakdown of low-code no-code solutions

Today low-code no-code tools can be used for a wide variety of applications. Here are some of the popular ones:

  • Business applications: These are tools that can help you create a wide range of enterprise-grade applications without writing a single line of code. You can also automate your workflows easily.
  •  Chatbots: Chatbots can make CRM a breeze. Using tools like these, companies have been able to create custom AI chatbots that can ensure that customers get the best experience possible while generating further leads.
  • Design: With millions of pre-existing templates, graphics, vectors, fonts, and color palettes, tools like these make designing graphics on a professional level a breeze.
  • Databases and spreadsheets: Data is key, and sharing it has become a little tough due to the sheer volume. Tools like these can help users collaborate and share large amounts of data easily and remotely.
  • Forms and surveys: Tools like these help create professional and good-looking forms using online form builders. These tools' diverse customization capabilities ensure a distinctive style without having to code a single part of the form.
  •  Integrations: These tools can help users seamlessly connect all of the cloud-based applications that they are using so that data can be shared and integrated easily.
  • Mobile applications: Mobile users are steadily on the rise, and thus tools like this help individuals create mobile applications without needing to know how to code.
  • Productivity: These tools help business users manage their various tasks and data, leading to better project management and data management.
  • Newsletters: These tools have simplified email marketing by automating the processes needed for delivering the newsletters to the right people at the right time, using the right channels.
  • Website builders: Building a website has become as easy as a few clicks due to these tools. Regardless of its size, every business can now have a fully functional website without needing to spend time coding it.

Citizen developers vs. professional developers

As citizen development rises in popularity, it's fulfilling specific needs in the market for developers; the deficit created due to a lack of professional developers in the industry who can help companies achieve their digital and technological goals. However, there are multiple types of citizen developers who have different interests and strengths.

Here's a breakdown of the different types of citizen developers:

  • Power users: These developers focus on using no-code low-code tools to increase their own productivity. They are also willing to share these tools with their team if they think they can enhance productivity on a business unit level. Their citizen development activities are part-time.
  • Business developers: These developers are business experts first and developers second. This type of citizen developers are focused on creating solutions in their spare time that can help their team advance quickly and enhance their productivity. Since they are subject matter experts, they can build robust apps dedicated to solving specific business problems that their teams face. Their citizen development activities typically include automating workflows and building simple department-level applications for their teams.
  • Business unit developers: These developers are usually full-time developers with a pre-existing knowledge of coding and coding languages. These developers often progress from an administrative job that includes building apps as part of the job description, which leads to a greater knowledge of data and processes that help the business operate smoothly. These individuals support the business developers build and deploy applications for a business unit, department, or division.

Here are a few fundamental aspects which can help differentiate between citizen developers and professional developers:


Citizen developer

Professional developer

Coding knowledge

No formal training

Formal training along with knowledge of coding languages.

Type of job

Employed in departments other than IT such as HR, admin, marketing, finance.

Employed in the IT department

Method of application development

Proficient in low-code or no-code tools

Proficient in manual coding as well as using low-code tools

How can citizen development help you and your company?

Every company can benefit from introducing citizen development to their employees, regardless of their size or scale. Citizen development can help you mobilize your workforce toward solving unique problems through various low-code and no-code tools. 

This shift toward encouraging innovation and increasing efficiency can have a far-reaching impact on fostering a forward-thinking and digitally dexterous workforce. Citizen development equips those closest to the business to address their challenges without depending on central IT teams.

There are numerous benefits to using citizen development in your company; here are just a few:

  •  Accelerates development. Citizen development is a trend that can help you speed up your development timelines by months. The market is constantly on the move, and companies need to release new products and services fast. Citizen development can accelerate this process and ensure that MVPs and the overall creation of the new offering is as fast as possible.
  • Better efficiency through automation. Citizen developers can automate time-consuming, repetitive paper-based processes which can lead to more efficiency. These tools can be utilized to encourage more productivity on a company-wide scale.
  • Puts innovation at the forefront. Using low-code and no-code tools can inspire employees to innovate and create new apps and tools. Encouraging innovation on a company-wide level can help every employee become more digitally agile and solve technological problems on their own instead of relying on the IT department.
  • Helps reduce costs. Citizen development tools offer a low-cost alternative to the expenses incurred by getting traditional and professional developers to help with application development. Citizen developers can utilize the various tools available to create enterprise-grade applications at a fraction of the time and cost. 
  • Encourages digital transformation. Digital transformation is all-important in today's day and age, and citizen development can help bolster this goal. A robust digital transformation roadmap is essential. If you can utilize the power of your entire workforce, and not just the IT department, it will be much easier and faster to reach your company's goals.

Advantages and disadvantages of citizen development

Citizen development is a trend that can help a business become more productive and reach its goals consistently by democratizing development. Here are a few advantages and disadvantages to this phenomenon. 


  • Empowering IT to complete strategic tasks. The IT department is consistently busy with work that is business critical, and this leads to an ever-increasing to-do list of tasks. However, it can be challenging for the IT department to prioritize this work when there are constant tasks that aren't mission-critical, such as creating a system for HR to log leaves or trackers for other business departments. Citizen development can help free-up the IT department of such tasks and ensure that they can focus on broader, more strategic, and complex projects.
  • Streamlines the development process. While developing a software application traditionally through coding, the development team and the business team need to continuously engage at every stage of the software development life cycle leading to delay and possible loss of business requirements in back and forth communication.

    Citizen development can eliminate this gap by enabling the end-user to become the developer. With a better base of knowledge regarding the needed app, the citizen developer can create exactly what they need much faster than the developer doing it for them.
  • Is a low-cost solution. By utilizing citizen development, your company can save a lot of time and money during the application development process. Applications can be built faster, allowing the users to focus on other projects. Maintaining applications built using low-code no-code tools is easy. This reduces the maintenance costs of software as well.
  • Increases agility. Citizen development provides companies with a method of pivoting quickly to meet new demands or challenges. If everyone is actively involved in finding a solution instead of a select group of people, they can adapt rapidly to new situations. Citizen development spurs on business agility, leading to faster reaction times.
  • Solves the shortage of developers. As there has been an evident shortage of professional developers compared to the need, companies can leverage their employees' increased digital dexterity by introducing citizen development to the employees. Given the right tools, these citizen developers can help bridge the gap between developers' supply and demand.


  • Managing security. While citizen development enables those closest to the business to build software applications to solve their problems themselves, it also introduces the risk of security vulnerabilities being introduced through the handwritten code by the citizen developers.

    Therefore, it's important for the central IT team to deploy the necessary controls and guard rails to mitigate this risk. It's worth noting that this risk is more applicable to low-code tools than no-code tools since no-code tools do not require any coding, thereby considerably eliminating the possibility of introducing security vulnerabilities.
  • Runs the risk of excess. Every employee creating their own applications can lead to a disorganized mess of excess and repetitive applications with similar functions if not carefully monitored. Citizen development is fundamentally meant to provide freedom for employees to innovate, but when left unmonitored, it can start racking up technical debt and a cluttered IT landscape, leading to problems in the future.

    Ensuring that there is a system is in place to gauge whether an application is actually needed for a purpose and allowing these applications to coexist on the cloud, can solve these problems in the long-term.
  • Requires instruction. No-code and low-code tools are built to be user-friendly. However, they still require some learning to use efficiently and correctly. If you hold workshops and seminars where interested employees can learn how to use these tools, you'll soon have a team of capable individuals on the road to becoming successful citizen developers instead of floundering without any instructions or guidance.

How can you govern citizen development at your company?

Citizen development can sometimes feel uncontrollable as it is based on the idea of giving your employees the freedom to create and build whatever tools and applications they need. However, without a well-designed method of governance, citizen development could turn into shadow IT quickly.

Shadow IT is the use of hardware or software by an employee that has not been permitted or cross-checked by the IT department. Unsanctioned software and hardware run the risk of causing security challenges, lack of standardization, slow implementation, and lack of modernization in the long run.

However, governing your citizen development with the following tips can turn shadow IT into your frenemy.

  • Providing a controlled environment: A secure platform can help citizen developers create what they want without the risk of security gaps. A centralized and monitored no-code or low-code platform can ensure that your citizen developers can freely create their MVPs, applications, and workflows. The IT department can also view the progress on ongoing projects, keep track of new initiatives and share information easily through a controlled platform.
  • Training: Providing your citizen developers with guidance can help them progress faster in their no-code, low-code journey. Some tips and advice can go a long way when encouraging your employees to learn new software or tool, leading to better output in less time. As your citizen developers gain more confidence and skills, keep an eye out for innovative solutions that'll blow your mind!
  • Collaborate with IT: Citizen developers have a lot to learn from those in the IT department who have been in this industry since the beginning. Collaborating with IT on specific projects can give them an insight into the inner workings of the IT department and give IT the chance to monitor the actions of the citizen developers closely.
  • Support on a cultural level: The entire organization has to be on the same page when it comes to new initiatives like this. The organizational culture needs to be supportive of the citizen development initiative. This support will go a long way in ensuring that citizen development can help with continuous adaptation and improvement to other systems as well as encouraging flexibility and agility on an enterprise level.

How can citizen development impact digital transformation?

Digital transformation is a buzzword that's been on everyone's mind currently. Digital transformation is the process of using digital technology and software to enhance or rethink strategies, products, and assets to deliver the best value on an enterprise level.

This process has become exceedingly important in our technology-dominated world. Each company needs to be able to put its best foot forward through its digital presence and processes. This can be done by digitally transforming the company from the ground up.

Citizen development can help spur on digital transformation by empowering business users with tools that enable them to create the applications that they need. More and more companies have already started reaping the benefits of this initiative with an increased focus on introducing citizen development tools to their employees. 

Citizen developers have in-depth knowledge about their daily roles and requirements, so it makes sense that they're the best people to find repetitive and time-consuming processes and tasks that can be automated to save time and money. Utilizing no-code and low-code applications has allowed non-technical users without any knowledge of coding to create enterprise-grade applications and automate workflows easily.

Empowering the workforce with easy-to-use technology that can simplify their daily work and create a more productive environment is perfect for encouraging digital transformation on the whole. With some technical training and governance, these business users can also help lessen the burden on the IT department, leading to an increased focus on enterprise-wide holistic solutions.

Citizen development also helps to promote increased digital dexterity throughout the organization, which can lead to the employees picking up technology more quickly and easily in the future.

Which resources can I refer to for more information? 

Everyone is curious about citizen development and digital transformation, and some of the best resources are available on the web in the form of podcasts, eBooks, websites, forums, and more. You can check out a few great resources through this list.

Motivated and technologically-adept individuals at all levels of the company can become frontrunners for this initiative, leading to more efficiency and more productivity. 

Utilizing no-code and low-code tools can also help you speed up your digital transformation journey, especially if the entire workforce is involved in coming up with innovative and creative solutions for unique problems. Citizen development might be the key to ensuring that digital transformation goes smoothly in your company.

Development doesn't have to be difficult.

Learn how no-code development platforms can assist with demystifying the world of development.

Development doesn't have to be difficult.

Learn how no-code development platforms can assist with demystifying the world of development.

What Is Citizen Development? Breaking Down the Basics Low-code and no-code platforms provide users with the tools to create applications, forms, and websites without hand-coding, thus leading to the advent of citizen development. Learn what citizen development is and the benefits of implementing it in your company.
Vivek Goel Vivek Goel is an expert at B2B SaaS marketing and has 20+ years of experience in helping companies change the way that they operate digitally. As the VP of Marketing at Quixy, he believes in enabling enterprises to build applications faster and innovate through no-code.

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