Trends on visual , interaction patterns, and research techniques are mandatory readings for designers these days. Today, I want to invite you to move from theory to practice.

I would like to thank those who helped me to promote new ideas and improve work processes and results: Sebastián Quintanilla and David Jurín. Pure Latino talent.

In the next 10 minutes, I’ll showcase the reasons why you should start using Design, when to use it, and how to do it.

What is Pair Design?

Pair Design stems from a previous technique called Pair Programming, used in the Development field for the last 10 years. Basically, it consists of two developers coding on one computer under a certain set of rules. This technique has been highly valued, claiming clear improvements on results, more productivity in the long term, better team relationships, plus other benefits.

Participants and roles

Just like in Pair Programming, we can identify 2 roles; let’s call them Driver and Navigator. Very similar to the automobile sport known as Rally. One of them guides and the other one nails down ideas in a design proposal (i.e. being in charge of the mouse).

It sounds difficult, but it isn’t. Each member should be aware of the importance of their participation in each moment as Driver or Navigator. It’s key for both to verbalise ideas, communicate and collaborate.

No matter what the level of expertise of the participants is, it’s important to be able to debate and be flexible during the session, as Pair Design is a space for collaboration.

Who and When to Pair Design

From the evidence, Pair Design has been used only by visual and interaction designers, but I’m sure this technique could be explored by different professional profiles and fields.

These are some cases in which to run a Pair Design session:

  • Userflows
  • Wireframes
  • User interfaces (UI)
  • Visual design
  • Creative block situations

Pair Design

The Pair Programming theory does not describe something that is crucial for the success of this technique: timing.

From the field of Agile development and Product design, it has been proven that human performance is more efficient during short periods of time, and especially with short-term goals. That is how we can remain focused.

The human body operates in cycles called ‘ultradian rhythms’. In other words, our capacity for concentration works under cycles of 90-120 minutes during the day. According to research, there is a peak when we are up and energised, and then a period when we are down and tired. Afterwards, we need a 20-30 minute break; a moment to rest and disconnect to recharge energies to face a new cycle.

Timed Pair Design is a framework where two designers work together to reach a specific design goal by exchanging roles and activities during a period of time.

Steps for a TPD session

Session length should be no more than 4 hours, although I would recommend splitting the session into 90 minute parts with 20 minutes of break time in between. Each part is divided into 10–15 minute rounds where roles will be exchanged.

  1. Goal definition
    The first step is to define an objective that could be reached in a maximum of 4 hours. That could be creating a wireframe or designing a new user interface. The more sessions you have, the better estimation of goals/time you will achieve. 
    Suggested session time: 4 hours
    Suggested round time: 15 minutes
  2. Roles assignment
    Driver and Navigator should be designated now. I would recommend to start with the junior designer as a Navigator and set a trusting environment from the beginning. It’s important to exchange roles on each round.
  3. During the session
    Keep the team focused and communicating. If you are the Driver, comment on everything you do and what your idea or plan is. In case you are the Navigator, be a strategist; set up a vision and comment on whether or not you know how to perform the task at hand in a more efficient way. Set an atmosphere for debate and co-creation.
  4. End of session
    Share your thoughts on the results and analyse what you have learnt and what can be improved upon.

Benefits of TPD

  • Achieving better communication
  • Improving the creative process
  • Enhancing knowledge sharing (theory and technique)
  • Getting more solid results
  • Exploring more ideas and solutions
  • Building stronger relationships between members
  • Gaining empathy
  • Increasing productivity

Tips and tricks

  • No phones: try using a watch to manage your time
  • Respect the suggested timeline
  • Grab your own mouse/pen and feel comfortable
  • Debate, propose and co-create
  • Remember this is not only a tool to mentor junior designers, but for all levels
  • Add a whiteboard, post-its or just pen and paper
  • Don’t always use the same pairings
  • Form pairings based on the objectives and member profiles
  • Enjoy the session
  • Break the rules, respect time
Be a team.

Hacking the framework

In the field of design or any other creative activity, it’s difficult to set rules to impact creativity in a positive way. This framework is under construction and is open for new ideas and modifications. Feel free to test drive it and adapt it depending on your team and goals.

Please share your experience with TPD and leave a comment on how it’s working on your team 🙂



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