In agile software development pairing is a technique that engineers use to maximize efficiency and quality. It helps engineers deepen their practice and relationships. It adds a level of fun to their work and gives them more confidence that they are proceeding down the right path.

UX Designers can get these same benefits from implementing their own pairing model. Due to the nature of design vs. engineer work the model for Design Pairing is structured differently than pair programming. Design Pairing has additional benefits in environments with multiple on-going projects because multiple designers will be well informed about product and design decisions instead of just one.

Here are the benefits my teams have derived from design pairing:

  • More ideas breed better solutions
  • Feedback from critics that matter
  • Identification of important edge cases
  • Internal team building
  • Better coverage for a designer that is absent or transitioning

How it works

When a project begins there are two designers assigned, one is the lead while the other is a design partner. The lead designer will spend most of her time on that project while the design partner will spend small increments during key moments (as explained below). The design partner will also have her own projects where she is the lead and will have her own design partner. These activities are broken up into three phases: the joint kickoff, individual sketching (diverge), and collaboration (converge.)

Phase 1: Joint Kickoff

Both designers are there during the kick-off with stakeholders. If possible the design partner can attend most sessions. This enables both designers to have a shared understanding of the stakeholders desires, motiviations, and context.

Depending on the project this could be one or multiple meetings. Each designer can participate as they normally would, asking poignant questions and clarifying requirements and goals.

Once it is time for visualizing potential solutions each designer goes off to sketch, sketch, sketch…. by themselves. That’s where the joint kickoff ends and the individual sketching begins.

Benefits: * Both designers have a shared understanding of the project details

Phase 2: Individual Sketching

At this point it is a divide and conquer effort. Each designer may choose to do activities like research, and should do those activities individually. They come up with as many ideas for how to solve the problem, but they do it alone. Take a walk, come back, reflect on your work. Refine. This effort can all take place over the period of a few hours to a day. Performing intitial sketching individually provides more value than doing it together because you are not influenced by other people in the room or other ideas. You have quiet time where you can focus. I see this period of the process as “growing ideas.” Come up with as many solutions as possible. You are preparing for pairing.

Benefits: * Individaul sketching yeilds more ideas, and those ideas are more varied, resulting in a better product * Sketching is more rapid than doing high fidelity design, but still keeps both designers in sync on important decisions about the product

Phase 3: Collaborative Decision Making

Then later that day or they next day the designers get together and share their work. This is where the collaborative fun begins. How did the designers solve similar problems differently? What are the pros and cons of the different approaches? Some ideas will merge while others will be discarded. There could be a case for putting two different ideas in front of users or subject matter experts to see which resonates the best. As the project matures the lead designer works with the core project team and the design evolves. The lead designer will handle the design responsibilities for the project, however she will meet with her partner for critique and collaboration at key milestones or for a casual check-in on an idea.

Benefits: * Even though designers do not work together 100% of the time, they both understand why and how critical product decisions were made

This way of working sets up a great format for discussion because the design partner has context. Since the partner understands the business and the problem she can get right to the design. A second set of eyes always has the potential to make a good design great, but because of the design partner’s involvement in the process her comments will have valuable substance. This model has been most useful with complex subject matter. I have found that when someone critiques a design and they do not have an intimate understanding of the business or its rules the discussion may not get beneath the surface.

Downstream the lead designer may have meeting conflicts or other projects that pull her in a different direction while that original project continues to move forward. Keep the design partner involved with any major discussions or events. If you do this the design partner can cover for the main designer. In some larger organizations designers can unexpectedly be pulled off projects and assigned to something new. Ramping up a new designer from scratch is painful. With this structure it becomes an easier transition if the partner can swap in.

Get creative for how it can fit into your team structure!