Pair design is an awesome way to get designers to collaborate more closely, increase design quality, and for team members to learn and grow together.

Two unicorn owl playing having a great day at the beach, street art digital art, generated with DiffusionBee
Two unicorn owl playing having a great day at the beach, street art digital art, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Pair design leads to better design collaboration

Modern product design is a deeply collaborative discipline. Whether it’s the discovery process within the product team, or functional practices like design critiques, there are a lot of opportunities to exchange ideas and get feedback.

While collaboration is the name of the game, the reality is more nuanced. Designers often work alone as the sole designer in a product team. A lone researcher or designer leaning over a piece of paper, a spreadsheet, or a Figma canvas focused on ready some artifacts for the next round. This thinking and crafting, so maker time is necessary for progress.

There are a few trade-offs with this setup (designers in product teams, occasionally collaborating with other designers). Designers are slower to level up their game as they don’t learn that much from each other, there is no shared knowledge in case a designer leaves the company, and the overall UX of the software suffers as there is less clarity about the boundaries, and how features connect.

This is where pair design comes in. On the surface level, two designers sitting and designing together a single piece of product experience sounds like any other type of collaboration, or maybe even avoiding progress and just generally being inefficient. But the opposite is true.

While timewise pair design might take longer (as two people spend time on the same thing), the overall efficiency in terms of outcomes is much higher. As within the process, there are already two pairs of eyes on the design decisions, there are less obvious issues in the end. While having to articulate design decisions as they are made, makes the overall design rationale better, more likely to fulfill the intended outcome. Overall this all leads to a higher design quality. This type of collaboration is also more inspiring and energizing, contributing to overall design team happiness. Finally, pair design allows team members to learn from each other, so it’s especially valuable to level up junior or mid-level designers.

Pair design has its roots in pair programming, though the advantages are different (it’s more about the overall app UX than having fewer bugs in a piece of code). Usually, it’s two designers collaborating but can work with any discipline (so designer & researcher, designer & product manager, designer & engineer, or any other combination). The difference to other types of collaboration with more participants (like workshops, reviews, etc.) is the immersion into the problems and solutions, the strength of connection in the pairs, and having a clearer focus on the pair roles.

For pair design to work right, the participants should understand what each should be focused on. I like the generator and synthesizer metaphor, though the driver and navigator might be easier to understand.

One participant, the generator or driver, focuses on generating ideas, trying out things, and focusing on tactics. In a typical Figma setup, this would mean quickly creating new artboards, pulling in components, adding details, and exploring directions. The other participant, the synthesizer or navigator, focuses on bringing in the broader perspective, talking about the user needs or data, giving feedback about how ideas get us closer to the goal, and exploring edge cases and the impact of decisions. In Figma, this would mean mostly following the work of the driver.

A trick to get pair designing right is to articulate these roles. In pair programming, engineers sometimes only use one keyboard and mouse to emphasize this. For designers (especially with Figma’s or Miro’s multiplayer) setting the roles (maybe even as role cards) can be helpful.

For designer & designer pairs (or maybe any setup) switching roles is also a fun way to work together. Playing the navigator role, and taking a step back from the canvas might give new inspiration to the driver.

Besides roles, choosing people who play together well is also key. This means compatible and complementary personalities, skills, or skill levels. Especially as pairs might spend a lot of time together.

In the past when I worked in designer & researcher pairs, it seemed that designers tend to focus more on the generator role, while it’s a natural fit for researchers to be in the synthesizer role. This way researchers have a natural way of collaborating on the design, bringing in their knowledge about users. Designer & researcher pairs are also a good way to set up complementary skills.

Another way to set up design pairs is to have juniors pair up with more senior members of the team. These days I strongly believe most juniors and even a few mid-level designers are not ready to get into a product team and be a peer to product managers and engineers, as they need to develop their craft, collaborative skills, and confidence. Growing skills through pair designing is a great way to improve craft skills, practice collaboration and communication skills, and have a good immediate impact on outcomes.

Pair design has benefits for designers working in the product team setup (one designer per product team) - as they get an outside perspective and feedback from a design peer. Because each designer would have their team and priorities, it’s challenging to make time for pair work. A workable way is to allocate a few hours (1-4) every week and pair up designers for the longer term, so they have an understanding of the other team’s context.

For design leaders, the practice of pair design is an opportunity to level up the whole team’s design output. Experimenting with various ways to pair design within the team as encouraging to use this deep collaboration cross-functionally helps in adopting the practice. I also used pair design as a way to coach and engage designers in their project work by allocating some time each week to work together on their priorities.

🥤 To recap

  • Pair design, two designers working together on a piece of design at the same time is a different type of collaboration than workshops, reviews, critiques, or anything with more than two persons present.
  • Advantages are a more efficient design process (better decision articulation and output quality) and engaged and energized collaboration for designers, and team members learning together.
  • To get started, set the roles. The generator focuses on the tactical level, and drives forward, while the synthesizer focuses on the strategic level, brings in perspectives, and data, and navigates.
  • With product teams (one designer per product team), the setup is to have long-term pairs (quarter length) and allocate a few hours per week to work together. Alternatively have the driver and supporting navigator roles for projects.
  • This practice helps to level up junior and mid-level designers to be true peers in product teams by working with another, more senior designer.

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🍪 Things to snack on

The single best resource about this topic is the Pair Design book by Gretchen Anderson and Christopher Noessel (article version). If somebody is looking to adapt this practice, it’s well worth reading through, as this describes in detail how the collaboration goes along the design process, what’s the right way to set up pair design, how it fits into broader team context, and also has a few case studies.

Tom Kupka has a pair design case study in Pair Design in practice. This details the background, how they set up the process, how roles changed over the phases of the design process, and some nice learning to close.

Christopher Noessel offers some example models for pair design in Pairaphors: Explaining pair design (metaphorically). By thinking about analogs, the model of the collaboration and how to make it work right is easier to figure out. The article gives the following examples: Cooper’s Generator & Synthesizer model, Pilots & Navigators, Artists & Producers, and (my favorite) Mulder & Scully.

While pair design as a concept is easy to get, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out how pairing should happen. In 3 Different Models Of Pair Design Mariya Yao lists models that can be used as role prompts to spark the pair design flow. The three are Generator & Synthesizer, Lead & Support, and Cross-Disciplinary Pairs, each taking a different view on the collaboration.

Nina Mehta did a talk on pair design that has a recap in How to pair design (and convince your boss to invest in it). It’s great getting some insights on how roles differ between driver and navigator, tips on setting up pairs through Figma’s multiplayer, and how to approach designing in pairs. What’s extra nice are the few tips about how to talk about the advantages of pair design to leadership if they are not convinced yet.

On Pair Programming is a quite detailed description of engineers’ approach to working in pairs by Birgitta Böckeler and Nina Siessegger. Since pair design has its roots in Extreme Programming’s pair programming practice, it’s worth a read to get a different perspective on what’s happening in such a collaboration. The article gives some guidance on the technical setup and tools (like deskspace to accommodate two persons, time and energy management) developers use, the differences between longer and shorter engagements, and a lot of practical tips.