Pair Design Rule #1: Wear One Hat at a Time

August 19, 2014 Kim Dowd


Written by Pam Dineva and Kim Dowd.

Imagine pairing with another designer for 6 months on a project. and loving it.

We shared 40 hours a week, a screen, a product, client relations and a problem space. Together, our process was ad hoc and organic, but we were _fantabulous_. After launching our client’s product, we took a step back in hopes of codifying the tenets so that others could share the same joy we did. We researched Cooper’s famed methods. We sat in Eames chairs. We shared a cronut. We watched Pinky and the Brain. We listened to recordings of our pairing sessions. And out popped 15 rules. Which won’t fit in one blog post. So, here is the first, most important rule:

Pair Design Rule #1: Wear One hat at a Time.

Play the navigator, then the driver. Then swap. And swap again.

Play the Structured Asker

(aka Sherlock!)

When wearing the navigator hat, you are the structured asker of thoughtful questions. Be extra mindful and supportive of your pair when asking questions. Know that your pair’s ideas are either insane or pure genius. You won’t know until you help the ideas come out, develop a little, see if they solve some problems. Don’t be too judgey too quickly. Embrace ambiguity. Be the best navigator you can be by asking thoughtful questions. Channel Curious George.

When your pair explains an idea about interface, client relationships, personas, or research stop yourself from saying things like, “Pffft, who needs an interface made of only radio buttons?!” Instead, challenge yourself to ask 5 thoughtful open ended questions.

Some Navigator Questions

  • What problem are those 57 radio buttons solving for the user?
  • What would the Paulette persona do after downloading the free version of the virtual Bath Soap Bubbles app?
  • What is the user learning in that dialog?
  • How does this map to the larger system?
  • see Jason Fried’s post for many more

Play the Driver

(aka Edison!)

Don’t be afraid to say or draw something silly. Do you have the crazy idea that the app has an illustration of a giant emerald as the navigation because your users like to role play as forrest fairies. Go for it. Screw Apple’s paradigms! Really, just be crazy. HIG-a-wha? It’s ok, your pair will make sure you don’t get blacklisted from the app store. This is your time to embrace your inner what if… Be the ideas person. Embrace it.

Be comfortable with ambiguity, with spitting out things that don’t make sense, because you are in a no judgement zone. You are in a fuzzy, fun place where the driver will get excited about your ideas. Whatever you say, the driver is there help you build on it.

Some Driver Ideas

  • It’s an auto-magical world, we explore it all!
  • Riddle lock screen.
  • Facial recognition that evaluates your hairstyle and locks anyone with bad hair (namely Snape) out of the device
  • The interface from Battlestar Galactica could also work here…


Be kind, trade hats, let someone else have ideas for a while, or let someone else find the order. Pretend this is a family member that you want to have good experience. No one wants to be the negative Nancy nudging about rules all day, everyday, forever. Conversely, no one wants to be responsible for purely innovative ideas all day, everyday, forever. Switch around. Take a rest. Use a different part of your mind. Its good for you. Like chicken soup. Or Muji notebooks. Or switching between standing desks and bean bags.

Our recipe for a great pairing session.

Set up:

  • A collaborator to design with.
  • Time. Pick a day, half a day or half hour even, set a timer on it.
  • Hats. Find hats or bedazzle your own.
    *bonus points if you make a new metaphor for navigator & driver*

Get Started:

  1. Solve a sample problem for a user. “How does the Maruaders’ Map recognize Snape and deny him access?” was ours.
  2. Wear your hat, loud and proud.
  3. Swap & repeat.
  4. Retrospect at the end, spend 10 minutes discussing
    What did you like about each hat :)
    What could be better or still feels odd :/
    What was difficult about each hat :(

The Backstory

After our last project together, we wanted to examine our pairing practice. Talking about the pro’s, con’s, and meh’s of the past 6 months and it was helpful, but the nuances that made the pairing so effective were subtle and elusive. If only a magic elf with a typewriter had recorded everything we said and did. Instead, we audio recorded ourselves pairing for an hour on a faux design problem for a 21st century version of the Marauder’s Map — and yes, we share a spirit animal, and it’s Harry Potter.

We listened to an hour long recording of our voices, cringing at how weird our recorded voices sounded. We figured out what each person was thinking, saying, and the subtle interactions in-between. Just like a synthesis of user interviews, we came up with insights and dubbed them “The Ten Rules of Pair Design (plus appendix!)” We will be dishing out a post from the series each week over the next few months.

About the Author


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