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Pairing for Designers

Pairing (left). Not to be confused with paring (right). It’s advisable not to pare your coworkers.


A few years ago, as a fresh faced Product Design consultant for Tanzu Labs, I plunged into pairing techniques for the first time. Haling from software development practices, we extend these pairing techniques to Product Designers in order to collaborate with and up-skill each other and our clients.


At first I was admittedly a little confused, I thought I understood pairing. “You mean working on something together, right?” I asked my lead at the time, Andrew. “What have you been doing?” He asked. I described a Jr. Designer drawing some screens and then sharing those drawings with me for feedback. “Nope, that’s not pairing” he said. He kindly sat down next to me and told me what to draw in Figma as we looked at one monitor, him describing each move exhaustively in detail, step by step. We sat side-by-side for twenty minutes as I drew squares and circles, added drop downs and text headings. Then we changed whose hands were on the keyboard. I gave him minute directions during these next twenty minutes, and he drew. It was radical, (frankly) stressful, and a revolution from ways I’d collaborated before.


How to practice Driver–Navigator pairing


The pairing created surprising moments for conversation. We discussed everything from Figma shortcuts to deeper level, research based approaches. In a roundabout way, pairing allowed us to achieve better user outcomes. I ended up having to explain some of the user resarch that informed some feedback and decisions I made. I learned some best practices from Andrew, like why not to use a certain type of non-dismissable banner. These deeper takes bubble up naturally as subjects when you are pairing on mundane things. These kinds of conversations had rarely come up in group critique or more formally scheduled peer feedback. We created a new kind of value through simultaneously sharing the problem context as we solutioned. Two brains, one screen, ideating together.


Two brains, one screen, ideating together.


As I learned more about pairing I discovered that as designers we can pair on lots of things beyond Figma UI designs. For example, we can pair on things like:


  • Writing user testing scripts

  • Creating personas

  • Low and Medium fidelity sketching

  • Ideation board process mapping


We pair at all levels of experience, not just as a way to upskill Jr. Designers (although it’s great for that). We can also adjust our pairing style to be be a little more or less directive as the situation and experience level of the pair varies. e.g. as a navigator with a Jr. Designer you can say something prescriptive like, “Make a Blue square here”. In this case the Jr. Designer may just getting their bearings with a new tool. They might feel overwhelmed with deeper level analysis when they are just trying to figure out how to make a frame in the software. With a more advanced pair, you can look at Figma together and say something more open-ended or goal oriented such as “Find a way for parents to know what their children have watched” and observe what your pair choses to create. With an advanced pair you can, for example, build a usability testing script together and say “let’s test for whether or not users are able to complete the purchase flow”. Then watch and discuss as they write the scenario, prompts, and questions to assess success in that purchase process.


Although there are many styles of pairing, I find that driver-navigator technique works best for Figma design and script writing. Ping pong pairing can work great for ideating at the board together. Personally, I like trading off with the Pomodoro timer to help get through tasks that are a boring but necessary slog. Things like having to manually re-classify the naming format of 600 component variants in a design system. It’s easier to get through that if we have a concrete break time in short sight. Or that might be better suited to a solo task and a podcast. It depends on what you and your pair chose to work on together vs. solo.


Pairing sessions are typically long, lasting for 4–6 hours a day with plentiful breaks.

These side-by-side paring sessions can easily be conducted either in person or online via video-conference. Tanzu suggests the ideal set up to be adjustable height tables with multiple chairs and big, angle-adjustable monitors for screen sharing. Pairing sessions are typically long, lasting for 4–6 hours a day with plentiful breaks. Pairs rotate out daily among the group of potential pairs if there are enough people.


It’s a fast way to get everyone at a project to contextualize the problem


Pros:

  • Pairing is a quick way to build up context together on a shared problem space.

  • The deep level of extended collaboration results in fast up-skilling for all parties.

  • Working this way improves teamwork and collaboration since it requires shared decision making from the get go.

  • The extra ideas and the space to debate them tends to lead to better products.

It can feel overwhelming. Especially for introverts.


Cons:

  • The extended social timelines of this technique can be tiring, especially for introverts.

  • Requires team bonding and psych safety for success. Make sure to build the relationship first with lots of team bonding games/ friendly chats, walk and talks, etc.


Pairing requires team bonding and psych safety for success.


  • It can be difficult not to drive when navigating or navigate when driving for some of us (*cough* me, I’m in this shamefully driver-seat-navigating group sometimes— also I’m not a great follow when dancing). In pairing, sometimes you have to lead and sometimes you have to follow.

  • Compromise can become a tempting anti-goal. Aim for discovering the best solution, whatever that is, even if one party disagrees with the direction. The most important thing is that all the team’s ideas are heard and thoughtfully considered before a path is chosen. The path of least resistance or the most compromise may not necessarily be the correct path for the product. Remain open and curious until a path is decided.

  • Pairs are different people with different brains. You will disagree sometimes, period. This is normal and actually leads to the best results when you can work through differences well. A high level of psych safety coupled with a weekly team retro helps lots with this!


Let the pairing good times roll!


When to use pairing technique:

  • As designers, PM’s, or developers on a balanced software team.

  • When upskilling someone over a long period of time on a shared project.

  • When onboarding someone to a new project.

  • When deeply sharing with peers to collaborate on something.

  • If you both don’t know something but want to figure it out together. E.g. let’s check out the newest iteration of Figma autolayout together!

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