To grow their businesses, customers expect their partner's products to be tailored to their specific needs. This commodity will be even stronger in the near future. However, it is not possible to hardcode each customer's needs into your product.
Moreover, customers need to integrate products with their own internal systems or 3rd party applications. This forces software companies to provide some level of customization through extensions, scripting capabilities, APIs, or workflow automation tools.
Out of these, the only one that is directly exposed to the end-users, via low or no-code visual drag & drop builders, is workflow automation. The others are aimed at developers, who are able to hardcode an integration or special functionality.
This demand makes business process automation crucial for any modern business, but it is not always easy to understand and automate such processes.
We’ve come a long way since Frederick Taylor and Henry Gantt (remember Gantt charts?) started helping companies and manufacturers to understand industrial efficiencies back in the 1920s. But since then, companies of all sizes have been searching for technologies that help them be more efficient and therefore serve their customers better, faster and cheaper.
For example, marketing efforts highly benefit from automation technologies as they are more effective if tailored to a specific user segment or even individual users. Managing this fragmentation would not be possible without involving such automation technologies.
Workflow automation, however, is not just about automating processes, activities and data movement within one company. It is increasingly involving a variety of 3rd party applications, AI technologies, external databases (CRM, HR, …), communication APIs and many other systems that need to be orchestrated in order to work in harmony with each other.
Take Salesforce as an example. It is not surprising that Salesforce introduced a low-code Flow Builder in 2018, which allows business users to build their own custom applications with clicks, not code.
Twilio, the communication platform, also introduced a visual builder for communication applications and IVRs:
Another example is Github, the development platform and source code repository, which introduced their Github Actions, a visual workflow builder to create software deployment and build processes easily, with drag & drop:
We know what you are thinking: this is all great, but how do I launch it for my clients? Well, we got you covered. Our team has developed the perfect checklist that will help you launch this automation tool to your platform so your clients can enjoy all of the benefits. So, before you continue reading to learn all about workflow automation, you can download the launching plan here and learn more about how to launch these visual integrations with a real-life example and use cases.
How does workflow automation work
Most workflow automation tools provide a visual drag & drop interface that lets users define a sequence of steps that are automatically performed by the workflow automation software. This sequence consists of a trigger that is followed by one or more actions and can be interlaced with logic operations, such as decision points, or other utilities, such as schedulers. These workflows, or sometimes referred to as flows, are then executed when the trigger is activated. Data - possibly transformed - from one action/trigger is then passed on to another in sequence until it reaches the end of the sequence.
Assuming that the tool provides a useful set of triggers, actions and utilities, it is easy to see that custom applications and automations can be built by business users without any coding skills. Given that all workflows are represented visually, it is much easier to communicate such sequences between teams, aiding enterprises and speeding up the implementation of a product that has a workflow automation tool.
Not only it frees up IT resources, but it also promotes the creativity and efficiency of these tools' users, therefore improving the efficiency of the entire organization.
Workflow automation is not complete without integrations
SaaS vendors are adding native integration capabilities within their offerings to make their products more comprehensive and “stickier”. Today, providing customers with native integrations is a must, but we ask you, is that enough?
Consider the following example, a SaaS vendor providing a CRM solution adds a communication integration that allows the business user to send an SMS. This allows the CRM user to set up the integration so that for each new contact added an SMS is immediately sent to them.
But what if the business user wants to wait one day from the contact creation before sending the SMS? Well, in this and many other scenarios, the integration by itself is not a solution. That’s where workflow automation comes into play.
With a workflow automation tool built into the SaaS vendor product, the business user can define their own rules, sequences and logic that will allow them to get the most out of the integrations and the SaaS product itself. Having all these integrations and workflows in place also makes it harder for the business user to switch to another competitive product.
Scaling SaaS business with workflow automation software and integration
SaaS products never work in silos. They are part of a much larger ecosystem that, as a whole, provides a solution to a customer’s problem. The journey from product to solution involves making your product interconnected and flexible enough to cover all your customers’ needs. To scale your SaaS business, you need to integrate with other products that are complementary to yours. Workflow automation helps you grow your business by making your product even more flexible.
Here are 5 signs to determine whether it’s time to add workflow automation to your product:
✔️ Your customers are familiar with your product and are now asking for more.
✔️ You want to extend your reach and attract more sophisticated, high-ticket customers.
✔️ You’re receiving more and more requests from your customers asking for customization.
✔️ Your product is not “sticky” enough and is easy to replace by an alternative.
✔️ You’re looking to grow your revenue by providing extra, advanced features to upsell.
Benefits of having a visual workflow automation builder in your product
Having a visual workflow automation builder is great, and here are the key benefits of embedding it in your product:
Make your users more productive
Your users will be more productive with the use of a workflow automation tool in your product because it helps them to:
✔️ Streamline their business processes
✔️ Reduce repetitive tasks
✔️ Allow them to more easily analyze their processes and workflows for further improvement
✔️ Enhance collaboration and communication between team members
✔️ Allow them to focus on more creative tasks
✔️ Minimize errors
✔️ Reduce approval cycles
Add new power-user features 💪
Enable your users to get the most out of your product by allowing them to automate their daily tasks, and add logic and scheduling to their workflows. If your SaaS product has an API (which it should have) plugging in a workflow automation engine and embed a drag & drop workflow designer UI to it is a piece of cake.
Smart integrations 🧠
Point-to-point integrations are great, but only to cover the most sought out and commonly used cases. In order for your user to easily find what they need amongst all the pre-built integrations, you should put a certain limit on what is available. It’s essential to have some point-to-point integrations for quick and easy setup, but it is important to let your users build other custom integrations on their own, with clicks, not code, giving them the flexibility to add sequences of steps, logic, scheduling, data extraction and data transformations.
Make your product visually appealing 😍
It should be standard that workflow automation systems come with easy-to-use, visually appealing UI widgets, especially the drag & drop workflow designer. These modern and beautifully designed UI widgets instantly make your product look better and user friendly, drawing your customers to it. Some SaaS products might not even have a UI, or only provide a basic one (Data processing, AI technology, Communication APIs, …), therefore by adding a workflow automation drag-and-drop builder UI, or even BI dashboards with charts, makes your product easier to market and sell.
Competitive differentiation ⚖️
Show your users how workflow automation can help them be more productive so they don't have to search for alternatives. You can retain your customers by offering them extra value, which they will certainly appreciate.
Turn your product into a solution 🚀
Your product should not exist in a silo! Connect your product with other complementary products through workflow automation, with integrations, to turn your “tool” into an ultimate solution for your customers' problems. Moreover, your customers are most likely already using some complementary products, and if yours is integrated and connected, it will make it easier for your potential customers to choose your product over others.
What to consider before choosing a workflow automation technology for your product
Choosing the right workflow automation technology for your product, or even deciding if you should get it at all, is not an easy task. So before you make a decision, ask yourself the following questions:
- Shall I build it in-house?
One option is to build the entire workflow automation engine together with the user interfaces and integrations yourself. This solution is a very resource-intensive effort and adds a considerable project overhead. To do this you should consider if you have enough R&D resources to not only build but also maintain and improve the system and all integrations. It may seem like the most cost-effective option, but this can become very expensive, time-consuming and your R&D will focus on projects that are outside of your core business. This is usually not a good option unless you have very specific requirements that no workflow automation technology meets.
- Does the workflow automation technology provide built-in and custom integrations?
A good, comprehensive, workflow automation technology should not only provide a bare “workflow execution engine”, but it should also come with built-in utilities, a set of connectors to 3rd party cloud applications, and SDKs and developer toolkits to make it easy to build your own, custom, integrations.
- Is the workflow automation technology customizable enough to meet your UX and branding requirements?
Workflow automation technologies usually come with at least a drag & drop workflow designer UI. Since you’ll be embedding this UI into your own web product, make sure these UIs are customizable enough to match the rest of your application branding and UX. Moreover, all UI texts should be possible to localize to any language your application supports.
- Does the workflow automation technology have good documentation and support?
Embedding a workflow automation technology into your own product is work for your R&D team. There’s usually a steep learning curve at the beginning, so make sure your workflow automation partner provides a good level of support, especially in the early days of your integration. Your partner should provide documentation with API references, tutorials and examples accompanied by a direct communication channel with your partner’s engineers.
- Does the workflow automation technology meet your security and privacy requirements?
Workflow automation technologies are typically delivered in two different forms: either as a hosted solution or as an on-premise installation. With on-premise installation, you have full control over the data and security because the software runs on your own infrastructure (cloud computing engines or private cloud), allowing you to use your own security mechanisms already in place. If you choose a hosted solution, make sure the vendor meets your security and data privacy requirements as you won’t be able to easily enforce it later.
Most common ways to integrate workflow automation in your product
Typically you would go through 3 steps to embed a workflow automation technology to your product, these are:
- Install the workflow automation system on your infrastructure.
First, you need to let your DevOps team or developers install the workflow automation system (engine + supporting technologies such as database, log storage, ...) on your infrastructure. The workflow automation technology vendor needs to provide you support, documentation and, ideally, configuration files for common infrastructure technologies (Docker, Kubernetes, …) or cloud computing engines (AWS, Azure, GCP, …).
- Implement triggers and actions for your own product.
You need to build triggers and actions through your product's API to allow your users to be able to use your own product features in their workflows. Once ready, you can upload your “components” to the workflow automation engine. These components are usually very lightweight and only perform an HTTP call to retrieve or send data from/to your system. These components are independent of any other connectors to 3rd party cloud applications provided by the workflow system. That means that you have to build a set of triggers and actions for your own API only once, in which your users can connect to any other connector in their workflows.
- Embed a drag & drop workflow designer UI in your product’s user interface.
Now you’re ready to actually provide your users with a drag & drop workflow designer as a part of your product. Different workflow technologies provide different ways to embed their UI to your own. There are generally 3 options:
a) External link
You just link to an external web page from within your application. This option is the easiest, but it does not provide enough customization capabilities. It also makes linking the user accounts between your application and the external ones cumbersome.
In this scenario, you embed an external UI into your web application through HTML IFrames, directing the embedded IFrame to an external UI. Again, this option provides very limited customization capabilities and incompatible user accounts.
c) UI SDK
Appmixer is a developer-friendly, embeddable and flexible
Appmixer provides the following features:
Drag & drop Workflow Designer UI
The modern drag & drop workflow designer UI of Appmixer is easy-to-use and provides you with logic, data transformations, account management and more. It also gives you a completely customizable set of connectors and groups, object shapes, colors, texts, fonts and other styles.
The built-in UI widgets also contain interactive charts and dashboards, allowing your users to get valuable insights from their running workflows. It’s like Google Analytics, but for their workflows.
Other UI widgets offered by Appmixer include Flows Manager, Connected Accounts page, Datastores browser and editor, and many others.
Built-in and custom connectors
With more than 50 ready-to-use connectors to the most common 3rd party applications already included, you can provide value to your users right from the start. But if what you need is not one of the 50 available connectors, you can build your own custom connectors easily and upload them to the Appmixer engine through our command-line utilities at any point in time without introducing downtimes.
Highly-available and Scalable Engine
Appmixer's engine has been built from the ground up to run in a cluster environment. The engine is highly available and scalable, and we also provide guidance and support in installing Appmixer in highly available environments.
Thanks to the on-premise installation model of Appmixer, you’re in full control of security and data privacy.
Appmixer’s modern REST API gives you access to all entities in the system, including flows, users, history, charts and many other features. You can even build your own UI on top of the REST API if you want to.
Appmixer’s web-based admin panel provides a back-office administration of the Appmixer engine, including its data and configuration. Through it you have a full overview of the usage of the Appmixer engine, users, flows and have the ability to configure ACL (access control lists).