What does Pair Design look like?

If you’re trying to figure out whether Pair Design is right for you or your organization, it’s useful to have a model of what it looks like across an interaction design project. So, let me paint you a picture.

I’ve broken down our typical goal-directed design process into broad phases that should be relatively easy to map to your own. But, if this is your first time reading about Pair Design from Cooper, I recommend reading up on the distinctions between the generator and synthesizer roles I’ve written about before, as I’ll be referencing those terms


Research is your first chance to experience the power of pair design, but it’s also your first chance to fall victim to one of its classic blunders. Stakeholders will often try to split the team up during the research phase to double the number of interviewees. We very strongly advocate against this, because while it might maximize the number of interviews, it is detrimental to the effectiveness of the team and the quality of the resulting strategy and design.

This is because while the activities of the generator and synthesizer are the same during research (they’re both there preparing for and conducting the research with stakeholders and potential users), one of the major points of research is for the pair to build a shared understanding of the domain and the users.

If you were to peek into the notes themselves, those by gens and those by synths tend to look a little different. Synth notes are often quite detailed transcriptions while gen notes are often overviews, diagrams, and maybe even some preliminary design ideas (just so you can get them out of your head and stop thinking about them). These reflect the different ways of thinking often embodied by the gen and the synth that combine to create a complete understanding in the next phase of the project.

Because being interrogated by two people could be a bit off-putting, Cooper encourages design pairs to specify a leader for each interview. To maximize the benefit of the pair, the generator and synthesizer can take turns leading interviews so that neither person gets too fatigued. Because the leader responsibility passes back and forth between members of the pair, there still isn’t a formal distinction in the responsibilities of the generator and synthesizer roles at this stage.


When the research trip is done, the team will return to the office and spend their days in a project room to make sense of what they learned and formalize their shared understanding. They will go through their notes together, capturing salient patterns and observations, and making findings explicit so they can be shared and vetted with the stakeholders. In this phase the pair will also create personas to represent the patterns they identified in research, and work through scenarios to define the fundamentals of the problem to solve. 

There’s little role distinction in this phase, either. Often it’s the most senior designer who leads the discussion rather than a specific role. But the key thing to understand is that the pair is co-creating, not dividing and conquering. They work together, talking through relevant findings from the research, and fleshing out behavior patterns into personas, and imagining those personas’ ideal experience with the future product or service, building a shared understanding throughout. 


It’s in the wireframing phase that the role distinctions become really apparent, with each member of the pair bringing their respective strengths to bear most visibly.Here again, the pair is co-creating in their team room. The gen will visualize concepts in a way that the synth can see—sometimes on a whiteboard, but more often on a tablet running OneNote, projected onto a nearby flat-screen monitor.

The gen leads concept creation, drawing a design idea and talking through the thought process of what he’s proposing, and the synth leads concept evolution, asking questions, raising concerns, connecting existing concepts, regrounding discussions in the project givens, and helping to solve problems that come up. This is an exciting time to be in the room to see ideas come to life, get acid tested through iteration, and come to ground. If heated debate happens anywhere, it’ll often happen here. Again: exciting.

Detailed design

In all the prior phases, you’ll note that the pair are working together, attentions on the same tasks, all day. During the detailed design phase, things work a little differently. The pair will spend part of the week or even part of the day working through a specific aspect of the design in detail, and the other part of the day or week working separately to document the design. The gen will describe those details in pixels in a drawing tool, while the synth will use a documentation tool to describe it in words. Then they’ll share their results at the end of the day or week for a cross check and iteration.

Though the pair is focused on separate tasks part of the time, they are still often working side by side, so it’s easy to ask a follow up question on the fly. Even if the members of the pair are working in separate physical spaces (enjoying a rare opportunity for some alone-time), they’ll typically keep open a chat window to keep the co-creation going.

Client contact

We’re often asked if one role or the other acts more formally as the client contact or lead presenter, and the answer is no. At Cooper, a design director is responsible for formally managing the relationship with the client, but we set up email lists so that our stakeholders can contact the whole team at once so there’s no bottleneck in communication. Whoever is best equipped to answer the question will handle it from there.

Similarly, in client presentations we don’t ask either role to lead, and encourage the pair to switch off to convey to the client the shared ownership of the work.

What it doesn’t look like

One of the things you’ll notice is that the team is working together 100% across the entire project. That should help illustrate two things that Pair Design does not look like.

Not feedback

Pair design is not feedback. It’s not that one person goes off to design alone, then brings it back later to see what another person thinks. Pair design keeps the conversation and iteration going continually, to avoid having to rethink a whole chain of decisions at some arbitrary point in the future. 

Not collaboration 

Pair design is not collaboration, where a bunch of designers pit their ideas against each other and duke it out to see who wins, or seek to find some Frankenstein hybrid that is the average of all ideas in the room. Pair design is co-creation and thought partnership, where the team is committed to finding and iterating the best idea together.

Picture: Painted

So that’s what Pair Design looks like from a macro perspective. A team working together, sharing tasks in research and sensemaking equally, and emphasizing role-based skills for wireframe and detailed design.

It’s this deep and continuous thought partnership that cranks the quality knob up to 11 and one of the key reasons Pair Design is so effective.

Chris Noessel

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