What is Design Pairing?

I learned about pairing when I started working at Pivotal. It’s a way for two people to collaborate on a single problem at the same time.

The main benefits of pairing:

  • Short feedback loops: By working with someone through a problem, you have someone else’s feedback helping you course correct as you are solving the problem, rather than after you have solved it.
  • Focus: Having someone else there helps you keep your direction and scope in check. Are you solving for the most important thing now? Or can those issues be solved separately at a later time?
  • Knowledge Transfer: Working closely with someone else creates a shared understanding of the problem space and how you arrive at a solution. Along the way, you also get to learn about other ways to think about the problem, and other ways of crafting a solution.

How does it work?

The key to pairing is externalizing your thinking and receiving feedback while working through a problem together.

If my pair and I are designing a screen inside Sketch, we would be sitting next to each other, using one computer. To make pairing easier, we attach two sets of keyboards, mice, and mirrored displays to that one computer.

Only one person is controlling the computer at any one time, while the other person is either listening or providing feedback on what he/she sees on the screen.

Even though only one person is actively using the keyboard and mouse, the other person can start to drive the computer at any moment. The two sets of keyboards, mice, and displays makes switching easy enough to happen dozens of times during a pairing session.

While working through a problem, you might have discussions on the scope of the problem you’re solving, approaches to solutions, and ways to execute the solution.

Common Questions About Pairing

  • Isn’t it slower to have two people working on a single track of work than two people working through two separate tasks?
    • It depends on the task. If it’s a rote task, and all you need to do is to execute, then it’ll be faster to have each person churn out their own widget. However, if you’re working on problems where there are multiple possibilities, tradeoffs, and solutions, the outcome will be better with another person.
  • What if I work faster by myself, and I need space and time to think?
    • This is probably true for a lot of us, since we have only worked at the two ends of the spectrum, by ourselves or in groups. There aren’t a lot of places where we articulate thoughts in progress. We work alone, and present in public. Pairing flexes a different set of muscles, where you externalize your thinking and intentions. It brings the dynamics of day-to-day conversations to problem solving. There aren’t many places to practice this, and the skills you pick up while pairing also improves how you work by yourself.

What I’ve Learned Through Pairing

  • You practice communicating your intentions more clearly. Ideas crystalize faster because they need to be understood by someone else.
  • You come across unknown unknowns and learn a lot of things that you didn’t think to ask. This happens when you see another person think through a problem differently than how you would’ve tackled it. Outside of pairing, our thinking is mostly invisible to ourselves and others. When we pair, we see the contrast of all the things we take for granted.
  • You learn to disagree and find paths forward. It’s useful to separate whether you disagree on the problem, goal, priority, or solution.

How to Try Pairing

  • Find someone else that is interested
  • Work on a problem together.
  • Spend 1 hr to 1.5 hrs pairing
  • After the session, spend 10 minutes talking about how it went. What you would do differently next time.

If you would like to try pairing, send me a note. I’m interested in meeting new designers and introducing pairing to more people.