Pair Designing

April 23, 2014 Paul Farino

Pair designing is similar to the agile technique of pair programming. Two designers work together at one workstation. There is one ‘generator’ who is pushing pixels on the screen, while the other designer is ‘synthesizing’, critiquing and providing real-time feedback. Designers switch to and from ‘synth and gen’ — creating a quick iterative process (This is similar to ‘driving’ and ‘navigating’ in the traditional pair programming sense).

What are the benefits of Pair Designing?

Pair designing improves both productivity and quality of output. Having two designers work in a collaborative environment creates both short and long-term value.

Short term value adds include:
1. Finding Files
Creating, maintaining and enforcing file naming structure is an unsolved problem. Designers who pair can quickly reference mockups and versions because they were a part of creating those iterations. This even extends to when there are multiple design pairs.

2. Staying Focused
Fleshing out design stories and pushing pixels on a the same screen leaves minimal time for personal web browsing and email—your pair really doesn’t care about your Facebook. Need to check email? Excuse yourself and take five minutes. Pairs hold each other accountable to focus on the task at hand.

3. Fewer Interruptions
Since pairs are working side-by-side, there are fewer interruptions for offhand questions, quick critiques, and to locate specific assets. This is embedded into the pairing process.

4. Faster, Higher quality
There are fewer creative and UX plateaus. Pairs work through flows together, continuously iterating on design.

Long term value adds include:
1. Collective Ownership
I designed ‘X’ becomes we designed ‘Y’. Pairs collectively design and drive out design stories.

2. Knowledge Share
Knowledge is constantly being shared between designers. One benefit is learning workflow techniques such as cutting Android assets, shortcuts, and scripts.

Another benefit is minimizing specialization of designers with specific domain knowledge (mobile experts, Sass experts, etc.). This transfer of sole ownership over a skill minimizes ‘bus count’. Having a high bus count number lowers the risk of losing a single person (through natural attrition, vacation, etc.), or having a single point of failure. Every designer at Pivotal Labs works on every level of the system, from visual design to IA down to usability testing. The more people who understand the whole system, the more resilient the team will be.

Knowledge share is also important for mentoring new designers. You can quickly onboard new designers to a specific project or team. The second designer in the pair can give context to design decisions, visual language, etc.

3. Minimize Waste
Pairs are working collaboratively, designing in the open and not in silos. There are fewer ‘throw-away’ mockups because low-level design decisions are validated on-the-spot, instead of during end of week critiques. This helps keep the focus on design decisions and not design deliverables.

Pairing Etiquette

Pairs are encouraged to articulate what they are doing on screen and what goals they are trying to accomplish. By speaking out loud, designers share context on design rationale.

Speaking out loud also acts as a catalyst to reflect on different product points throughout the pairing session. The ‘synth’ can quickly reference patterns and visual styles to keep the other pair inline with a design language. This helps to minimize long-term design debt.

Pair Rotation

An important factor for achieving knowledge dissemination is pair rotation. When there are multiple pairs, each pair switches to work with other designers (creating a new pair).

When a pair works together for an extended period of time (“Pair Married”), they may dictate a design in a specific direction. Periodic changing of pairs encourages a more holistic design direction.

When a pair gets stuck on a specific flow they can switch to get a fresh set of eyes on the problem they’re trying to solve. The new pair can provide that necessary nudge to push past the design obstacle.


There’s a natural tension of pairing and working independently to yield the best design decisions. It’s important for teams to experiment and find the right balance of pairing versus working individually. One example is to follow a diverge and converge pattern. We’ve found that some tasks are less applicable for pair designing, such as cutting assets or writing DRY documentation.

Pair designing has been especially helpful when spiking on ideas, and refining the visual language on our projects. We’ve been more consistent in both our visual and interaction patterns. Another benefit has been the ability to quickly onboard new designers — giving them context to business and technical domain knowledge. Pair designing has shown to be effective by increasing the efficiency and quality of our design process.

About the Author


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