Why you don't have to be a coder to build an app for development work

The donation center at the Nae Kavala refugee camp near Polykastro, Greece, where DropApp was created and is used. Photo by: A Drop in the Ocean

BARCELONA — Gone are the days when it was just computer programmers and software developers who could build apps. With online courses on everything from coding to front-end web development, as well as tutorials and boot camps, professionals from all sectors can now learn the basics of designing and building apps.

Devex spoke to a graphic designer and a project manager who, while working in the field, saw an opportunity for software to help them work more efficiently. They gave us their top tips for building an app for development.

Focus on functionality and ease of use

Drop App is a not-for-profit tool for distributing food supplies and “selling” clothes and shoes to the residents of the Nae Kavala refugee camp near Polykastro, Greece. Graphic designer Bart Driessen came up with the idea while volunteering with A Drop in the Ocean, an NGO supporting refugees in the area. While helping to set up a clothing shop in the camp, Driessen realized it was going to be challenging to track stock levels, purchases, and the needs of residents.

There were already tools out there for logistics and warehouse management, he explained, but they were expensive and not designed for this kind of project managing second-hand clothing donations of varying sizes and quality. Along with another volunteer, Driessen began creating a software tool to more efficiently track demand and distribute clothing, and allow residents to pay for their purchases using a virtual currency that they are allocated on a weekly basis.

Why on-the-job experience can be as valuable as a postgrad degree

Two global development professionals who chose not to pursue a postgraduate degree and instead focus on gaining experience on the job share their experience.

The pair had some experience in website and user-centered design. Creating the app required a lot of these same skills, Driessen said. There was, however, a lot to learn in database design and back-end development, and they did so using online sources such as Stack Overflow and coding reference documents. This kept costs to a minimum — their only expense was purchasing a server.

The learning process was ongoing as they built the app, he added. The pair started on the idea just a few weeks before the shop opened, but continued working part-time on the app for some months after that.

Being in the field and seeing exactly what the needs were helped them make the project a success, Driessen said. One of the biggest challenges was designing the app so that it could be easily used by volunteers, who typically stay for just a few weeks at a time and wouldn’t have time for extensive training.

“The app doesn’t require a lot of training to work with it and that was a big challenge to solve that,” Driessen said. It had to be something that was simple for users, including those that were less tech-savvy, but at the same time have enough functionality to actually be useful, he explained.

Since its creation, Drop App has expanded to offer laundry, library, and bike rental services to camp residents, allowing them to book donated bikes via the app to get into town more easily. The same idea has been used to build Boxwise, an open-source app that helps other organizations source and distribute donated goods.

Solutions don’t need to be slick and expensive

While working on a six-month test project in Haiti, Marissa Germain found herself struggling to quickly assemble a team, despite having experience and networks in-country. It was there that she first had the idea for an app that would allow development employers to quickly verify candidate references and speed up the hiring process. Germain started to develop Reedoe, which she now runs as a small business offering services to both individuals and organizations.

Having originally considered learning to code, Germain soon realized that with so many different coding languages and aspects to building an app, it could become overwhelming. She started instead by attending tech meetups and participated in the Lean Startup Academy and other workshops.

“The message that I kept learning was that before you can use technology … before you write an inch of code, you have to use whatever materials are cheap and available to simulate the app,” Germain said.

This gives you “a clearer idea of what it is exactly the app is going to do, what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to function.” Even if you choose to work with professionals such as coders and graphic designers to bring the app to life, it’s essential to be able to communicate this information, she explained.

Germain set out to find cheap ways to produce her idea. Through online research, she discovered “drag and drop” solutions such as Squarespace and Knack, which allow you to build software without code. Germain’s previous experience building WordPress sites also gave her the confidence to start working on the back-end of the application.

In the first year, the cost of creating two websites and applying the plugins for the database management was no more than $1,000, she said, and annual maintenance costs since then have been similar.

Her skills in project management also came in handy when it came to following timelines, understanding legal frameworks, and finding solutions, she said.

“All of the experience I’ve had throughout my career working in development [has] really helped with building out this startup on the business side of things,” Germain said.

There will always appear to be people “better tooled, better skilled, better funded than you,” she continued, but you shouldn’t give up on an idea. Reach out to friends and colleagues who have the skills and networks you can leverage, and put yourself out there through newsletters and online groups in different industries, she advised. And be patient. Working on the app part-time, it took about three months to produce a draft version but the concept has been around five years in the making, Germain explained.

“It just takes time — to do the research … to find the communities and to find the teams, and the consistent chipping away at an idea until it starts to take on some legs,” she said.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.