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Ladies that UX: Local group raises profile of women in software and design

Frances Close, left, Kimberly Wolting, top right, and Christy Ennis-Kloote bottom right.

Founded in January by two local software designers, Ladies That UX aims to provide an avenue where women can hone their chops in User Experience design, and also help each other navigate some of the challenges that confront women in an industry that's still mostly made up of men.
When Kimberly Wolting, a software designer and consultant for Atomic Object, and Christy Ennis-Kloote, a senior user-experience (UX) designer for Visualhero, met for coffee last October, they discussed the fact that both of their firms were openly hiring and looking at candidates, but both of them noticed an all-too-familiar pattern: they had seen hardly any applications from women.

“We were like just kind of ... ‘Hashtag: where the ladies at?’” Wolting says. “And from that 30-second conversation, things got moving very quickly.”

The problem that Wolting and Ennis-Kloote identified isn’t specific to their employers, or to Grand Rapids. In 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures showing that women held only about one-quarter of information technology jobs, and newer 2014 statistics from the BLS indicate that only about 20 percent of employees in software development, applications and systems software are female.

During that same coffee meeting, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote decided they had to do something substantive to start tackling the issue. Ennis-Kloote mentioned that she had heard about a UK-based group called Ladies That UX, which hosted meetups and events where women could discuss both UX practices and social and professional issues that women encounter in the field, and which had expanded to include chapters all over the world.

Within half an hour, the two had registered a Gmail account and Twitter handle for Ladies That UX Grand Rapids, and were well on their way to starting up the framework for a local chapter. Then, Wolting says, the two “sort of hit pause for a moment” when they realized they should probably contact the parent organization to introduce themselves.

“We didn’t realize we probably should have asked the [UK] founders first, but we were just pumped,” Wolting says. “So we took the time to pause and contacted the founders and said, ‘Hey, we probably should have asked, but is this OK?’ And they were so amazing about it and were so excited for us to get going.”

After taking a month and a half or so to formulate their vision for the Grand Rapids chapter of Ladies That UX, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote launched the group with their first official meetup in January, which they said attracted 28 people, a figure that “knocked their socks off.”

Although it’s hard to track any kind of membership, since LTUXGR don’t collect any dues or have any kind of membership roll, their meetup.com page shows 121 members; Wolting and Ennis-Kloote guess that they have “probably at least 100” local designers and software professionals who consistently show up to their events.

For those not familiar with the growing buzz around UX design, it’s a relatively young field of study that’s often associated with software and website design, but can apply to a vast range of industries and products. In the 2015 edition of their “Best Jobs in America” feature, CNNMoney ranked User Experience Designer #14, with a median annual pay of $89,300 and a 10-year job growth forecast of 18 percent, according to their partner site PayScale.com.

Wikipedia, culling from a research paper in the journal “Interacting With Computers,” defines UX as “the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product.”

Wolting offers a simplified definition: “It’s walking in people’s shoes and building a better shoe because of it,” she says.
“As soon as you wake up in the morning, anything you start touching — you’re having a user experience, right there,” Wolting says. “It’s not just [for] iPhone apps; it’s for automotive, medical instruments — all of these industries need UX designers and people don’t really realize it. If a human is engaging with X, Y or Z, then UX needs to be incorporated in some kind of way.”
“You have to be very practical, and take in sort of an appreciation of what people need,” Ennis-Kloote adds.

UX designers can come from a wide range of backgrounds: Ennis-Kloote, for example, studied industrial design in college, while Wolting majored in graphic design and illustration. Each discovered UX during their careers and more or less educated themselves, which is a frequent story for UX designers. There are few accredited colleges in the U.S. that offer full-on degrees in UX design, so professional training often consists of self-directed reading, online courses and conferences, and accumulated lessons from mentors met along the way.

While that “Wild West” feel to the UX field offers a lot of room for self-definition and growth, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote also point out that it comes with a cost: Senior leaders in the field are rare, and UX designers at the midpoint of their career sometimes aren’t sure where to go next. Do they become strategists or consultants, or start their own company? Where does the UX career track “peak,” so to speak?

So while UX design offers a promising job landscape with broad possibilities and ample room for growth, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote say that it also presents kind of a double-whammy of a challenge for female UX designers: They’re working in a male-dominated field where even the males don’t always know where their career is supposed to go next.

“A lot of people are confused about, ‘What is UX, how does it have a place in a company, how do I fit, do I even know what UX is?’” Wolting says. “So that goes back to the practical side, and because there’s such a low amount of ladies, women can feel intimidated to ask these questions especially.”

“Already they’re trying to overachieve and make sure they have their place, so they don’t want to show incompetence and ask those questions,” Ennis-Kloote adds. “So we’re trying to create a safe place to build those skillsets.”

In trying to address these challenges with Ladies That UX Grand Rapids, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote turned to some UX exercises and techniques for their first meetup, which was a casual breakfast get-together at a local cafe. They designed some fill-in-the-blank placemats like the ones you often see at kid-friendly restaurants, for one example, and populated it with ethnographic info and questions like, “If Ladies That UX would [blank], then in my career I could [blank].”

After getting feedback from attendees, they’ve settled into a loose formula for LTUXGR. The group hosts regular morning pancake-and-coffee meetups where members can focus on conversation and support, while they partner with organizations like AIGA West Michigan and Interaction Design Association (IxDA) Grand Rapids — where Ennis-Kloote also serves as a board member — to host evening workshop events that feature presentations about UX tools and techniques.

Their most recent evening UX workshop on wireframes, which was held at Mutually Human on June 19 in partnership with IxDA, and featured presenters from Universal Mind, Mighty in the Midwest and others, had an attendance of 73, Wolting says.

Ennis-Kloote also says she’s seen the population of women at IxDA events climb to match that of men since Ladies That UX GR started, up from just a small percentage of the attendance in the past.

Most LTUXGR events are open to men, and the group encourages male designers with UX skills or interest to show up, listen and offer their input to the dialogue. In fact, Ennis-Kloote and Wolting say that most of their mentors in the field have been men, and they came into the first meetup a bit naive: Although they were concerned about the lack of ladies in their field, neither had ever felt any sort of discrimination in their workplaces. They expected that other women would feel the same, and that the group would more or less move right along to sharing practical UX advice and ideas.

Instead, they said, a number of women came forward at the very first meetup to share trying and discouraging experiences of discrimination at some former employers, most of whom weren’t located in the Grand Rapids area.

“I didn’t know that would be the case, but now I’m even more happy we’re doing this,” Wolting says. “Whether or not they’re supported where they are now, we can tell them: ‘There are places in GR that are supportive and don’t discriminate. We work in them. They are there, and you just haven’t found them yet, but don’t be bummed out because we’ll help you find someplace great.’”

As for the reasons behind the lingering male dominance in UX, software design and other related fields, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote think it’s often unintentional, but there can be a little bit of a “frat” mentality in forming startups: You’re a guy managing a startup and you need someone fast, so you hire your “brogrammer” and maybe a guy he used to room with.

“This is where I keep going: it’s not intentional, it’s just your circles. And sometimes women just aren’t as much, ‘Hey, that’s my buddy, so we should work together,’” Ennis-Kloote says. “It’s not supposed to be cronyism [at these male-dominated companies], but… it’s ok, I’ve got this thing I need help with, and my buddy’s free… so some of it is just increasing that circle strength and networking [for women].”

Ennis-Kloote also knows from experience that even the most conscientious male mentors can’t help with every challenge that women face. She had three children during her career track as a UX designer, which she said “required some serious negotiation” when employers often didn’t have maternity leave policies in place. She said that concerns about family status can creep into employment decisions as well, and might contribute to the lack of female software and UX designers in the field to a degree.

“I’ve seen people do very well in reviewing resumes, in terms of balancing,” she says, “but I’ve also seen the critique crop up of, ‘Oh, she’s young, maybe she’ll have a family soon, so why would I invest in that employee?’”

Regardless of the reasons for the lag in female representation, Wolting and Ennis-Kloote both say they look forward to the day when “Ladies That UX” can morph into “People That UX.” They recall a recent experience of seeing a speaker on a “Women In Design” panel at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, who opened her presentation by saying that she shouldn’t have to sit on such a panel at all.

“That’s where we’re at, too,” Wolting says. “When I think about how, like, Atomic Object has a mission of: ‘We want be a 100-year-old software company’ — Well, I don’t want to be a 100-year-old Ladies That UX organization. I want Ladies That UX to die out in 5 or 10 years when all the hard work we did to raise women’s voices, it’s enough and they are well represented and there’s enough of us.”

Even though the technology, software and design fields have a long ways to go to reach equal employment of women — even Wolting and Ennis-Kloote admit that five to 10 years probably isn’t going to cut it —, the two don’t want people to think that Ladies That UX Grand Rapids is focused on anything but moving forward to promote greater diversity and inclusion in the UX field. For every woman who feels dispirited thanks to a bad experience with an employer, the two say they can share plenty of encouraging stories from their own careers, and from the software and design community they know in Grand Rapids.

“If there’s one thing we’re definitely not doing, we’re not sitting around and bashing men,” Wolting says. “It’s quite the opposite. I really want to tell people that there are places out there where men are great to work with and very supportive. The companies we’ve built here [in Grand Rapids] are really great places to work.”

“[The conversations we have are] less about, ‘Don’t work at this company,’ more about, ‘Hey, come work at this one,’” she says. “So we’re trying to be advocates for our local community that we think has been really great in this area.”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird
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