Karen VanHouten is the principal information architect and product manager for SoHo Xi, a new UX system that Hook & Loop launched yesterday to Infor’s product development teams.
Your original plan was to be an English professor. What brought you to tech?
It was completely accidental. After grad school, I took a break and started writing for a tech company—first in marketing and then technical writing. My love for learning and research really pulled me down this path into IA. It was a natural but completely unplanned progression. I think a lot of it was being open to opportunities that I was uncertain about and taking little chances and seeing where they led.
How did your experience in academia influence the way you work today?
Education is such an essential part of SoHo Xi. We’re not plopping some 300-page style guide into product teams’ laps and saying, “okay, now go.” We’ll be guiding them throughout the adoption process. And we’re also educating them about why they should adopt. Over the last few months, we’ve written dozens of articles for our internal UX blog about why things like accessibility and responsive design are so crucial to our users and to the success of Infor’s apps.
What do you think it takes to be a great IA?
I believe that IA is a personality type. You need to be a keen observer and a great listener, but you also need to be good at interpreting the results. It’s not just flat observation—it’s about understanding context.
You’ve been with Ladies That UX Grand Rapids since they launched last September. Can you give us some background on who they are and why they matter to you?
I really want to help get more women into tech, but I want to do it in a positive way. I feel like so many organizations and events focus too much on the difficulties we face when they should really focus on nurturing talent. Ladies That UX has given me the perfect opportunity to teach hands-on skills and inspire women who are new to the tech scene.
Last month I spoke on a panel about collaborating with teams in different locations, which is a topic that really hits home for me since I work remotely out of Hook & Loop’s New York office. I think it’s important to show women that the tech industry offers flexibility for whatever your situation might be. You can work from home. You can work part time. You can have a life. And you don’t need to live in San Francisco or even on a coast—you can do it right here in the Midwest.
What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in tech?
It’s okay if you don’t have a plan. Sometimes it’s nice to just hang out and enjoy what you’re good at before moving on or moving up. But with that said—don’t ever limit yourself. Have an open mind. And keep everything in your peripheral vision because you never know what opportunities will arise.