Modern web apps communicate via APIs. Let’s take Facebook for example. Business logic is responsible for adding your post to some kind of database and your timeline. This logic can be executed from different places. You may add a post from a mobile app or on Facebook’s page, and, as you well know, other apps can connect to Facebook and even post on your behalf.
All you need to do in order to execute this logic is:
- Know, where the back-end expects this data (a URL called an endpoint)
- Send data in a way the back-end understands it (usually in JSON format)
- Authorise using some credentials (login, token, etc.)
And boom! The post is on the timeline.
The whole web works like this. And thanks to this model, everyone can add, modify, execute commands in web apps.
But instead of becoming a developer and learning how to structure, format and send data across various APIs, there are tools that can do it for you. I call them LEGO tools. Once you authorise any app inside these kind of tools, they will be able to perform many actions on your behalf. For example, create a spreadsheet and add some rows to it.
Now let’s take this concept even further. If LEGO tools can connect to different apps, they can also exchange data between these apps. For example these tools can take the rows from a spreadsheet and post them to your Facebook timeline. The sequence, timing, delay, conditions — everything can be set up.
Now imagine you want to collect the data you have in a spreadsheet and distribute it across all your social media profiles: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, all at once. LEGO tools allow you connect to multiple apps and services you use and exchange information between them or act on the changes in one tool and notify another.
A few simple scenarios might be:
- Looking for events in your calendar and sending you text messages as reminders for the most important ones;
- Taking the tasks you log into Trello and filling your Google calendar accordingly;
- Sending out a sequence of emails to webinar attendees, posting on social media and assigning tasks to the team on Slack — all at once.
The best thing is about LEGO tools is that they expand the features of the software you already use to be able to achieve literally anything you can imagine. Often times there is one thing missing, say text reminders, in the tool that you already use. With LEGO tools you can add a text messaging service to your existing toolkit in a matter of minutes.
Some popular LEGO tools
The most popular LEGO tool is Zapier. Its main advantage is that it supports hundreds of apps and services out there. It also offers a clean and intuitive UI for designing automations.
The second one I want to recommend is Integromat. It has a really cool visual UI that allows you to build automations by literally connecting some dots. Plus it has a generous free plan to experiment with automation.
Those are the ones I use the most extensively. But there are many more, usually aimed at more specific tasks.
Parabola — really good at transforming data. This includes reorganising, spliting, reordering, formatting and much more. If you have a lot of different data sources or a large dataset you want to transform and pass to other tools, this might be the tool of choice.
Actiondesk — It relies on a spreadsheet interface to manipulate, transform and create logic inside your data. If you’re into spreadsheets, this is a nice tool to check out. Afterwards it lets you perform some transformations to the data and send it to another tool.
Automate.io — similar to both Zapier and Integromat, it is used also for some general automations. It offers fewer tools you can automate but still worth checking out.
Retool — this one gets data from API or a database and lets you transform it, even send back commands to be executed. If you want to create an admin interface for your database or some report dashboard, this might be it.
In addition, there are some action specific tools that don’t really go into the LEGO tools category as they allow you to connect usually one or two services and make something different on top. A good example is Glide, which lets you make a mobile app from a spreadsheet. There are plenty of great tools like that but that’s the topic for another story.
Where to start?
This can feel overwhelming. But once you understand the concept of LEGO tools, it’s quite easy to adapt and learn how to use any new tool. It is also worth to know at least a few. Sometimes the app you want to automate is available in Zapier but not Integromat. Sometimes you want to work with a large dataset and Parabola might be more convenient. Unfortunately, there is no one LEGO tool that covers all your needs but that’s a good thing. By learning different tools you become knowledgeable of different scenarios and ways of thinking.
When I first got to a point where I understood Zapier works, I felt so thrilled. But then I struggled with actually applying the concept to my business. The tutorials are out there but they teach you the wrong thing, such as “Connect X to Y”, while what you really need is “Achieve X by doing Y”. This is what I found really difficult and it took me over a year to come up with some good automation strategies and ideas.
The good news is I’m committed to help you learning all those tools. I think it is super fun to see those automations in action, saving time for yourself and your business. If you want to learn more, check out some of the courses I created.
This article was made possible by MakerPad, the platform to learn how to build powerful applications without code.