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UIX: Ladies That UX rallies women at the forefront of design and technology in West Michigan

Lindsay Mikita, Christy Ennis-Kloote and Karen VanHouten.

Women are overwhelmingly outnumbered by men in the computing workforce. To foster support in a world that can often feel isolating, local female design leaders from companies like Visualhero, Atomic Object, Amway, and Infor are banding together as part of a group called Ladies That UX. 
There's always something to fix.
 
That's not a complaint. It's not even a worry. For a collection of local women who join together over the common cause of user experience design, it's an obligation.
 
Ladies That UX (LTUX) is a network of design talent from all across West Michigan. Its members represent a segment of local industry focused on improving design through user experience (UX).
 
Monthly LTUX gatherings find women discussing challenges and solutions in user experience design, a field that's becoming as ubiquitous as its acronym, touching the spectrum of human-product interaction from the tangible to the invisible.
 
At its core, UX is a design practice, but there's no separating it from the technology field, where women have historically been underrepresented. Gathering the talents and skill of such a diverse group of women as found at LTUX pushes back against that trend of inequality by establishing role models, friendships, and support frameworks for females looking to succeed in the field. It was with that spirit in mind that UK UX designers Georgie Bottomley and Lizzie Dyson began LTUX in 2013.
 
LTUX is not meant to supplant a curriculum or offer employment. It's a safe space for women working in UX to promote and learn from each other. It's a simple idea, cultivating true innovation, which is what UX is all about.



 
LTUX GR
 
Christy Ennis-Kloote, Director of User Experience Design for Visualhero, has been leading the LTUX cohort in West Michigan for the last two years since co-founding the group in 2014 with Atomic Object's Kim Wolting. There are a number of LTUX groups throughout the United States. The nearest to Grand Rapids are Detroit and Madison, while 22 LTUX chapters reside outside North America, spanning five continents, and worlds of culture.
 
"The idea was to create a place for women in design to network," Ennis-Kloote says. "People come to the space to support each other, help each other, mentor and learn, but we can also make those connections and find opportunities."
 
That idea has kept the Grand Rapids chapter of LTUX growing for the past two years. Ennis-Kloote and Wolting are now handing over leadership of the group, and the momentum is showing no sign of slowing.
 
Lindsay Mikita, Senior UX Specialist for Amway, will be leading the next generation of LTUX meetups, along with Karen VanHouten, Principal Information Architect at Infor. Mikita says Ladies That UX GR meetings provide value as a supplemental avenue for finding training opportunity and growth in a casual setting. They're, laid back events where women can connect with each other and ask what are other companies doing, what each other is doing, and how they're all solving things.
 
Leading Women
 
According to the LTUX statement on being female only, "In 2013, 26 percent of the computing workforce was female, and within tech roles this goes down to a measly 17 percent. Of the 26 percent of the computing workforce that are women, over half of them leave before they reach senior positions. That means at a senior level that percentage drops to around 10 percent."
 
"We passionately believe that as an industry we could do better."
 
Bottomley and Dyson's call to action is making sense to more companies for reasons beyond gender equality. A byproduct of LTUX's aim is actually an untapped strength in many corporate and IT environments. And the women who gather at the monthly meetups are aligned around more than just a shared interest in UX. A study published in Applied Economics in 2015 found that "promoting women in boardrooms has a significant and positive effect on economic performance," and that female leadership is a key component of achieving goals.
 
Ennis-Kloote studied industrial design and art at Western Michigan University, spending a year in Berlin researching iterations of early 2000s smartphone technology. She's worked with some of the most innovative names in West Michigan technology and helped guide design advocacy organizations like AIGA West Michigan and IxDA. Mikita studied philosophy and a pre-law curriculum at WMU and paid the bills with coding work on the side, working her way through design and development roles at Northrop Grumman and Amway since then.
 
Like Ennis-Kloote and Mikita, the varied experiences the women of LTUX bring to the table suit them to tackle a vast array of problems, from product development to the socio-economic. And the design work of the future is going to require a bit of both.
 
"How do we shift changing conveniences to actually create more social change?" Ennis-Kloote asks. "I think the methodology of how to help users solve problems is very basic. It involves meeting people and trying to get to the core of the problem."
 
Designing for Tomorrow
 
An intersection of design and psychology, solving problems through UX begins with finding pain points in a system. A designer thinks about how people interact with a product, what problems then arise, and what the possibilities are to eliminate those problems. The roll-out process then involves early releases and thorough testing procedures, placing agile process above prodigious investments.
 
"You can do more with less. You can use smaller, earlier releases and test," Mikita says. "You're either going in with a bunch of research, smaller and faster, or you're coming up with this big investment to go out and sell."
 
The hook here is "fail fast, succeed faster." For many large companies, that directive may pose logistical hurdles. But as even some of the largest are finding out--Amway, Steelcase, and Meijer, to name a few--smaller internal incubatory programs can lead the way toward innovation.
 
The first step is empathizing with the customer. Finding a level playing ground on which everyone can communicate their needs and desires. Today that iteration manifests as the minimal loveable product.
 
As Sam Altman, of Y Combinator says, “It’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like.”
 
The members of LTUX GR celebrate differences as strength, Ennis-Kloote says, and help to "prolifically build the intelligence around design" in West Michigan. With all their varied interests and backgrounds, though, it's curiosity that links them above all. 
 
A lot of research and work goes into designing the next MLP, and a lot of women in West Michigan are up to the task. We may never live in a world without problems, but as long as ladies keep showing up to LTUX meetups, solutions will start showing up, too.
 
For more information on Ladies That UX GR, visit http://ladiesthatux.com/grand-rapids/
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
 
Photography by Steph Harding
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