Remote Pair Designing

Article one in a series on Pair Design at AppNexus

I really enjoy working remotely. I get to choose the city I live in and the company I work for, without compromising one for the other. One thing I’ve wanted to try for a while, however, is pair designing. At first blush it seems impossible to do remotely, as it requires a huge amount of face-to-face time. When I gave it a shot with the other designer on my team it turned out that not only does it work, it’s a lot more fun than designing alone.

The synth brings in context and focuses on user and business goals. The gen creates as many different ideas as possible.

What is pair designing?

Pair designing is where two people work together on one project so closely that neither person could describe the end result as their own. This can be quite extreme. For example, I’m told that at Cooper the two designers spend the entire day in the same room.

There are two roles, generator and synthesiser. The generator draws and tries to create as many different ideas as possible. The synthesiser asks the generator about ideas and decisions while also bringing in context: business goals, user goals and more. Pair designing helps keep the design process user focused and minimise personal biases.

How does it work remotely?

It seems like it would be difficult to spend an entire day in the same room with someone if you’re not… in the same room. However constant contact through video has allowed us to communicate effectively.

We’ve got scheduled meetings every Tues and Thurs, but we also have a lot of ad-hoc sessions

Scheduled and ad-hoc video meetings
My pair designer, Erin, and I have regularly scheduled pair designing meetings. These are a two hour chunk of time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is more about blocking off time on our calendar, to prevent our day getting so full of meetings that we get no work done.

We also have ad-hoc designing sessions almost everyday. We set these up in a few cases. When one of us is given a new project, received feedback on a project, or has been working on something and has discovered a part of the design that wasn’t decided together.

Whiteboarding is the fastest way for us to communicate ideas.

How the meetings work
We always make sure at least one person is in a room with a whiteboard. Each meetings starts with a quick prioritisation of tasks. This is about five minutes where we look at a to-do list and choose what to work on. We then try to allow at least an hour to do the actual design work.

Whomever is in the room with the whiteboard plays the role of the generator, while the designer watching on video plays the synthesiser. We’ve found whiteboarding to be very effective over video. With just a Macbook pointed at the drawing you can generally see enough to evaluate designs.

If we want to take a design to a higher fidelity level but haven’t hammered out all of the flows or screens on the whiteboard we will occasionally screen-share Sketch. We talk through the design as we’re moving things around. It’s a bit slower than whiteboarding, but that is always a drawback to working higher fidelity

Finally each meeting ends with five minutes where we figure out any action items. This is often sending photos of the whiteboard to the product manager or engineers to get feedback. It can also be planning more research or adding more items to the to-do list.

We did try a few non-whiteboard options:

  1. Invision whiteboard. We tried using the drawing tool from InVision. It was nice because we could both draw on the same object, but we found it slow and laggy when you had a lot of drawings on screen.
  2. One person in Photoshop with a drawing tablet. We tried screen sharing with me drawing in Photoshop. This seemed like it should have been just like drawing on a whiteboard, but it didn’t quite work for writing text.
  3. iPad. We used an app called SyncSpace which was not bad, and could be promising with a larger screen (iPad pro, perhaps?). This will likely be a backup in the future. We didn’t experiment with a lot of apps, though, so there could be a better choice out there.

Conclusion

Overall remote pair designing is a success. When I started at my company I felt disconnected because of my distance. Pair designing has helped me feel like a stronger part of the team. By keeping the rules of pair designing with regular meetings, my pair has been more productive and has started enjoying work (even) more.