Pair Design is a technique used to solve design problems in different stages of product development.
Have you ever found yourself with a task to develop independently, and later when presenting your solution to stakeholders or other teammates, you saw they had another perspective absolutely different from your line of thought?
And just to make it worse: it would have been so much better to have their input from the start of your resolution.
This is a common situation that Pair Design helps to avoid, as it relies on collaborative work and focuses on results.
Would you like to learn more about Pair Design? Then, keep reading to know how to use this approach in your projects!
What is Pair Design?
As the name suggests, pair Design—or Design Pairing—is a method where two designers work as a pair.
If you heard of Pair Programming before, this is quite similar. The idea is to have two professionals working together to solve problems. They share the same place, and work on the same problem, at the same time.
It might sound contradictory to allocate two people for the same task as you could easily optimize resources and have them work on different tasks to multiply deliveries.
But as strange as it may sound, the method actually contributes to optimizing productivity and focus—apart from other benefits.
First, let’s take a minute to understand what is not Pair design.
Be careful not to mistake concepts
It’s easy to associate Pair Design with other methods that work with collaboration between teammates. For example, a brainstorming session or even a meeting where colleagues get together to discuss a specific problem.
But none of these practices is Pair design.
Meetings can be a one-off event, used to discuss plans and actions and don’t necessarily involve a final solution as an outcome. They also follow an agenda, lasting for a specific period of time, and usually involve more people.
In the same way, brainstorming is a method to unleash ideas, not come up with concrete solutions.
On the other hand, Design Pairing looks for concrete solutions with focus, common sense, and constant collaboration. All these differences have to be clear in order to achieve the goal of pairing.
Generator & Synthesizer
The most common technique of Design Pairing is the Generator & Synthesizer, where two people take complementary roles to ensure the conclusion of a job.
Generally, Pair Design is set up with two keyboards and two mice but the same image on both displays.
To get started is important to define roles: who will be the generator and who will be the synthesizer.
Their role is to come up with ideas to solve a pre-defined problem. It’s important that the person is creative but also able to walk away from their own ideas and feel comfortable developing solutions in front of other people.
That’s why generators have a lot of experience with design patterns and feel at ease sharing ideas even halfway. The goal is to aggregate a lot of possible solutions for a problem, like in a brainstorming session.
Their role complements the generator. The person works as an analyst, testing and analyzing the ideas proposed by the generator, always having in mind their objectives and a clear vision of the outcome.
Generators can get quite intense in creating solutions and might suggest ideas that don’t align with the business or product goals. And that is ok because the Synthesizer is there to make this point and keep a skeptical view to refine the ideas presented during Design Pairing.
Combining the roles
The generator and Synthesizer will work together simultaneously: while the Generator gives ideas, the Synthesizer will put them to prove, ask questions, and provide feedback.
As you can see, the Generator and Synthesizer are complementary and of course, knowing how to listen and work collaboratively are essential for Pair Design.
The objective of this process is to work on an idea that can solve a design problem while meeting the business goals. It is a very intense work that requires a lot of focus from both roles, as well as collaboration, harmony, and mutual respect.
The Generator and Synthesizer roles don’t have to be fixed. Changing roles can be a great strategy to keep the process dynamic, giving Synthesizers time to share their ideas and letting Generators take a break from the creative process.
Apart from changing roles, the teams can also change. For example, if more projects are working in pairs, it might be an interesting strategy to rotate them to refresh ideas.
However, “one does not change a winning team,” so don’t consider changing the pairs if it means breaking a great team or workflow.
Remember: communication is essential for this method to work, and each person must perform their role.
Another technique to work with Pair Design is Pair Sketching. Here, each person will also have a different role: leader and navigator.
The process using this method happens in three stages:
- Define the problem or objectives;
- Working on the sketching task;
- Swap roles so each person plays both roles.
When defining the objectives of the exercise, the pair should discuss and agree on the task they will be sketching.
The navigator should go through the process and describe the concept of what has to be designed.
While the navigator explains the concept, the leader creates the wireframes.
Swapping: After a 5 minutes round, swap roles so the navigator can become the leader and vice versa.
When to use Pair Design?
Pair design can be done in different stages of product development, such as:
- Kickoff meetings: to make designers and stakeholders work closely so designers can have a better understanding of the project and make sure everyone is on the same page;
- Collaborative meetings with Stakeholders: a pair sketching exercise between designers and stakeholders to answer questions about design, concept, and workflow. This can be extremely beneficial for both parties because it helps stakeholders prioritize their own content as it generates valuable insights while involving a cross-disciplinary approach;
- Drawing wireframes: to help create workflows while inquiring about the process and user journey;
- Particular design needs: to answer a specific design need. One designer comes up with a solution through design work, while the other writes down the solution. Basically, one draws the answer while the other writes it.
In other words, you can apply Pair Design in the phases of Research, Discovery, Development, and in every iterative step to solve problems on-demand.
Learning with Pair Design: benefits
There are several advantages of using Design Pairing, usually related to focus, productivity, and the quality of results.
1) Provide focus
When working in pairs, people are less likely to focus on other activities, get distracted while scrolling through social media, or replying to emails or slack messages.
One person depends on the other to reach an outcome, so you are both held accountable for each other, creating synergy and collaboration.
Of course, everyone should take breaks, but the focus is nearly 100% while working.
2) Faster and better results
Generally speaking, two heads think better than one. So Design Pairing collaborates to faster deliveries.
Furthermore, defining two distinct roles in Pair Design (Generator and Synthesizer, for example) ensures excellent project deliverables.
There is not only someone who creates ideas but also someone who evaluates them for improvement, which is crucial for better results.
3) Knowledge sharing
People have different experiences and backgrounds, so collaboration can do wonders for sharing knowledge between designers.
Consequently, watching closely how someone else performs the things you do can be inspiring and highly constructive. This way, designers can learn new things as they watch and understand the inner workings of another designer.
So, always be open to listening, learning, and improving when working in partnerships. This benefits the project but also your own professional growth.
One of the premises of Design Pairing is validating design decisions on the spot to make efforts more efficient and minimize rework.
Reading tip: Desk Research: How To Conduct Secondary Research Efficiently
5) Improves teamwork
Working in pairs to solve problems brings people together, creates empathy and improves the work environment, and can even raise the happiness levels of your team members.
Also, it will be easier for the company to rotate its designers between projects if they are design pairing. Because if you move one person to a different assignment, there is still one designer who knows the product well and will be available for any questions the newcomer might have.
Pair Design: possible traps
Every method has its own challenges that demand awareness so we can make the most out of it.
With Design Pairing, pay attention to the following:
- Assume that everyone knows how to do Pair Design;
- Believe that whoever pitches an idea should take control of the process;
- Pair Design is not the master key to all problems.
1) Not everybody knows how to pair
One of the biggest mistakes of those who use Design Pairing is assuming that everyone else knows how to do it.
As a result, there are no explanations or prior planning about the process. Thus, what was supposed to be a collaborative and efficient practice becomes something messy or unproductive.
It’s essential to have a small tutorial explaining Pair Design and how to use it. That way, beginners and new collaborators are aligned, and the team can get the most out of the method.
2) Pair Design is about collaboration
One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in Pair Design is the ego issue. Many people under the Generator role may feel that they are in control of the process and boss around their peers.
But the truth is that Pair Design is the complete opposite of that. Collaboration between participants is essential, and there is no room for egos or people who wish to take over the controls.
A healthy pairing atmosphere will invite individuals to come forward, do their best and embrace their uniqueness while supporting teamwork. That said, pairing design should be about two people sharing responsibilities and risks.
Reading tip: Psychological Safety: Trust and Inclusion for Innovation and Efficiency
3) Pair Design won’t solve everyone’s problems
Despite being an excellent tool for creating, testing, validating ideas, and solving problems, Pair Design will not always be the best option for your needs.
Some problems don’t necessarily need pairing to solve. In some cases, having two people work on the same issue could be a wrongful allocation of resources.
Think about using Design Pairing for challenges that need intensive brainstorming, testing, and validations at a reasonable speed with high-quality solutions.
Final tips for Design Pairing
Things don’t always happen the way we think. So let’s take a look at some tips to ensure the method runs smoothly:
1) Start slow
If you’re just starting to pair, start slow. Talk a lot with your partner and write down what went right and what went wrong.
As you gain confidence, the exercises become easier and with less friction.
2) Promote cross-disciplinary pairs
Pair Design is not necessarily meant for two UX Designers. And in fact, one of the strongest points of Design Pairing is its flexibility.
Don’t be afraid to pair with other professionals, such as product managers, developers, or designers with different specialties.
Of course, the efficiency of cross-disciplinary teams will depend on the problem you have to solve. But encouraging diversity can be highly beneficial for the project and the people involved, as it promotes insights and learning.
3) Know the challenge upfront
Before starting is important to understand what the challenge is. Talk to your partner and make sure you’re both on the same page. Otherwise, there’ll be a lot of work and no goal.
4) Communication is paramount
Talk a lot to your pair; it is essential you both feel safe to ask questions. Good communication between team members is crucial to the effectiveness of Pair Design.
5) Take breaks
Pair design can be tiring, so it is important to take breaks. Before starting the day, agree with your partner on when you will take breaks for coffee, water, or just to clear your head. Productivity also requires time out.
As with any activity, Pair Design takes practice to be well executed.
So take it as a learning opportunity every time you do Design Pairing. Understand what was good and what wasn’t and carry that with you for the next time.
Iteration is not just about improving products but also about improving how we run our own processes.