In recent years, we have seen a wave of app-building tools coming in that enable users to be creators. Another such powerful tool is Microsoft PowerApps, a full-featured low-code / no-code platform. This platform aims to empower “all developers” to quickly create business web and mobile apps that fit best with their use cases. Microsoft defines “all developers” as citizen developers, IT developers, and Pro developers.
To know what exactly PowerApps is and its use cases, we sat with Matthew Weston, the author of Learn Microsoft PowerApps. Weston was kind enough to share a few tips for creating user-friendly and attractive UI/UX. He also shared his opinion on the latest updates in the Power Platform including AI Builder, Portals, and more.
Weston’s book, Learn Microsoft PowerApps will guide you in creating powerful and productive apps that will help you transform old and inefficient processes and workflows in your organization.
In this book, you’ll explore a variety of built-in templates and understand the key difference between types of PowerApps such as canvas and model-driven apps. You’ll learn how to generate and integrate apps directly with SharePoint, gain an understanding of PowerApps key components such as connectors and formulas, and much more.
Microsoft PowerApps: What is it and why is it important
With the dawn of InfoPath, a tool for creating user-designed form templates without coding, came Microsoft PowerApps. Introduced in 2016, Microsoft PowerApps aims to democratize app development by allowing users to build cross-device custom business apps without writing code and provides an extensible platform to professional developers.
Weston explains, “For me, PowerApps is a solution to a business problem. It is designed to be picked up by business users and developers alike to produce apps that can add a lot of business value without incurring large development costs associated with completely custom developed solutions.”
Microsoft PowerApps is a building block of the Power Platform, a collection of products for business intelligence, app development, and app connectivity. Along with PowerApps, this platform includes Power BI and Power Automate (earlier known as Flow). These sit on the top of the Common Data Service (CDS) that stores all of your structured business data. On top of the CDS, you have over 280 data connectors for connecting to popular services and on-premise data sources such as SharePoint, SQL Server, Office 365, Salesforce, among others. All these tools are designed to work together seamlessly. You can analyze your data with Power BI, then act on the data through web and mobile experiences with PowerApps, or automate tasks in the background using Power Automate.
Explaining its importance, Weston said, “Like all things within Office 365, using a single application allows you to find a good solution. Combining multiple applications allows you to find a great solution, and PowerApps fits into that thought process. Within the Power Platform, you can really use PowerApps and Power Automate together in a way that provides a high-quality user interface with a powerful automation platform doing the heavy processing.”
“Businesses should invest in PowerApps in order to maximize on the subscription costs which are already being paid as a result of holding Office 365 licenses. It can be used to build forms, and apps which will automatically integrate with the rest of Office 365 along with having the mobile app to promote flexible working,” he adds.
What skills do you need to build with PowerApps
PowerApps is said to be at the forefront of the “Low Code, More Power” revolution. This essentially means that anyone can build a business-centric application, it doesn’t matter whether you are in finance, HR, or IT. You can use your existing knowledge of PowerPoint or Excel concepts and formulas to build business apps.
Weston shared his perspective, “I believe that PowerApps empowers every user to be able to create an app, even if it is only quite basic. Most users possess the ability to write formulas within Microsoft Excel, and those same skills can be transferred across to PowerApps to write formulas and create logic.”
He adds, “Whilst the above is true, I do find that you need to have a logical mind in order to really create rich apps using the Power Platform, and this often comes more naturally to developers. Saying that, I have met people who are NOT developers, and have actually taken to the platform in a much better way.”
Since PowerApps is a low-code platform, you might be wondering what value it holds for developers. We asked Weston what he thinks about developers investing time in learning PowerApps when there are some great cross-platform development frameworks like React Native or Ionic.
Weston said, “For developers, and I am from a development background, PowerApps provides a quick way to be able to create apps for your users without having to write code. You can use formulae and controls which have already been created for you reducing the time that you need to invest in development, and instead you can spend the time creating solutions to business problems.”
Along with enabling developers to rapidly publish apps at scale, PowerApps does a lot of heavy lifting around app architecture and also gives you real-time feedback as you make changes to your app. This year, Microsoft also released the PowerApps component framework which enables developers to code custom controls and use them in PowerApps. You also have tooling to use alongside the PowerApps component framework for a better end to end development experience: the new PowerApps CLI and Visual Studio plugins.
On the new PowerApps capabilities: AI Builder, Portals, and more
At this year’s Microsoft Ignite, the Power Platform team announced almost 400 improvements and new features to the Power Platform. The new AI Builder allows you to build and train your own AI model or choose from pre-built models. Another feature is PowerApps Portals using which organizations can create portals and share them with both internal and external users. We also have UI flows, currently a preview feature that provides Robotic Process Automation (RPA) capabilities to Power Automate.
Weston said, “I love to use the Power Platform for integration tasks as much as creating front end interfaces, especially around Power Automate. I have created automations which have taken two systems, which won’t natively talk to each other, and process data back and forth without writing a single piece of code.”
Weston is already excited to try UI flows, “I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on UI flows and seeing what I can create with those, especially for interacting with solutions which don’t have the usual web service interfaces available to them.” However, he does have some concerns regarding RPA. “My only reservation about this is that Robotic Process Automation, which this is effectively doing, is usually a deep specialism, so I’m keen to understand how this fits into the whole citizen developer concept,” he shared.
Some tips for building secure, user-friendly, and optimized PowerApps
When it comes to application development, security and responsiveness are always on the top in the priority list. Weston suggests, “Security is always my number one concern, as that drives my choice for the data source as well as how I’m going to structure the data once my selection has been made. It is always harder to consider security at the end, when you try to shoehorn a security model onto an app and data structure which isn’t necessarily going to accept it.”
“The key thing is to never take your data for granted, secure everything at the data layer first and foremost, and then carry those considerations through into the front end. Office 365 employs the concept of security trimming, whereby if you don’t have access to something then you don’t see it. This will automatically apply to the data, but the same should also be done to the screens. If a user shouldn’t be seeing the admin screen, don’t even show them a link to get there in the first place,” he adds.
For responsiveness, he suggests, “…if an app is slow to respond then the immediate perception about the app is negative. There are various things that can be done if working directly with the data source, such as pulling data into a collection so that data interactions take place locally and then sync in the background.”
After security, another important aspect of building an app is user-friendly and attractive UI and UX. Sharing a few tips for enhancing your app’s UI and UX functionality, Weston said, “When creating your user interface, try to find the balance between images and textual information. Quite often I see PowerApps created which are just line after line of text, and that immediately switches me off.”
He adds, “It could be the best app in the world that does everything I’d ever want, but if it doesn’t grip me visually then I probably won’t be using it. Likewise, I’ve seen apps go the other way and have far too many images and not enough text. It’s a fine balance, and one that’s quite hard.”
Sharing a few ways for optimizing your app performance, Weston said, “Some basic things which I normally do is to load data on the OnVisible event for my first screen rather than loading everything on the App OnStart. This means that the app can load and can then be pulling in data once something is on the screen. This is generally the way that most websites work now, they just get something on the screen to keep the user happy and then pull data in.”
“Also, give consideration to the number of calls back and forth to the data source as this will have an impact on the app performance. Only read and write when I really need to, and if I can, I pull as much of the data into collections as possible so that I have that temporary cache to work with,” he added.
About the author
Matthew Weston is an Office 365 and SharePoint consultant based in the Midlands in the United Kingdom. Matthew is a passionate evangelist of Microsoft technology, blogging and presenting about Office 365 and SharePoint at every opportunity. He has been creating and developing with PowerApps since it became generally available at the end of 2016.
Usually, Matthew can be seen presenting within the community about PowerApps and Flow at SharePoint Saturdays, PowerApps and Flow User Groups, and Office 365 and SharePoint User Groups. Matthew is a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) and a Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE) in Productivity.
Check out Weston’s latest book, Learn Microsoft PowerApps on PacktPub. This book is a step-by-step guide that will help you create lightweight business mobile apps with PowerApps.
Along with exploring the different built-in templates and types of PowerApps, you will generate and integrate apps directly with SharePoint. The book will further help you understand how PowerApps can use several Microsoft Power Automate and Azure functionalities to improve your applications.
Follow Matthew Weston on Twitter: @MattWeston365.