Introducing the DuoDesk

September 19, 2014

We love pair programming here at Datascope. It helps us write more elegant and reliable code while reducing the time it takes to program. Some research suggests that pair programmers are happier than people who work alone, and leading companies all over the world are now jumping on the pair programming bandwagon.

We're taking pair programming to a whole new level thanks to a partnership with students at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Throughout the spring of 2014, we worked with four engineering students to create a new workspace specifically designed for the way we program. Here's what they have to say about their creation!

Despite decades of design and rethinking, desks haven't changed that much since they were invented in medieval times. They're still flat, roughly rectangular surfaces around waist height, with important things placed on top of them. And despite some noteworthy attempts to make them more collaborative, modern workspaces have yet to stray far from the original, solo-user design. We sought to change that by creating a pair programming station uniquely designed to fit the needs of a team, one that would join in on the action rather than simply supporting it at a comfortable height.

Through research and testing, we came to understand our design problem as one of communication; our design streamlines a triangle of communication between two programmers and a single computer, allowing all three to be involved in the process of coding simultaneously. Our final prototype, the DuoDesk, is an elliptical workstation with integrated circuitry that adapts a single-user computer interface into a pair-centric alternative. Users can alternate control of the computer through the desk's built in lights and USB switch, spending less time working around the limitations of their setup, and more time doing what they want to: programming. Here's how it works.

Elliptical Tabletop

elliptical tabletop design mockup and prototype

The elliptical tabletop serves as both the work surface and connecting structure for the rest of the design. Its shape is designed to provide adequate surface space for each user while maintaining optimal angles between both users and the central monitor. By varying the ratio between the long and short dimensions of the ellipse, we were able to optimize sitting angles into a position comfortable for both users. A flatter profile points the users more towards the monitor, whereas a rounder one angles them towards each other. This particular desk features a 3 to 5 ratio between the short and long sides of the ellipse, as well as a rectangular region in back to increase the surface area. We chose to make the tabletop out of birch plywood because if it's high strength to weight ratio and appealing surface quality.

Electrical Backsplash

electrical backsplash for pair programming desk

Mounted in front of the monitor, this short, vertical surface provides a place to put post-it notes (something the users at Datascope specifically requested) and serves as home base for our electrical panel and interface indicator lights. The whole backsplash was laser-cut from a single sheet of plywood in Northwestern's prototyping laboratory.

We designed the electrical panel based on feedback from one of our user testing sessions. This critical feature of the workstation automatically distributes and retracts 2 Mac chargers, a USB cable and a HDMI cable through special slots that allow them to slide without letting the head slip through. Once a cord is released, it retracts back behind the desk based on gravity alone, so it can't clutter up the workspace. The electrical panel is made from frosted acrylic plastic, and was laser cut to shape. We incorporated a standard 120 volt outlet into the panel, increasing the flexibility of the design to allow it to charge phones and other accessories. Everything else is powered by a bank of outlets hidden underneath the desk. Finally, the backsplash also houses the driver-lights on either side of the electrical panel. These banks of LED's indicate which programmer has control of the computer at the moment.

Driver Switch

custom-designed pair programming desk driver switch In pair programming, one programmer is called the “driver,” while the other is known as the “navigator.” The driver writes the code, while the navigator reviews it. Before we designed the DuoDesk, the programmers at Datascope would have to physically pass a single keyboard and mouse back and forth to switch driver and navigator roles. Our new driver switch lets each user keep their favorite keyboard in front of them by turning on only one person's keyboard a time. When the pair wants to switch roles, they simply push the switch towards the new driver, which activates the new driver's keyboard while deactivating the navigator's. The switch also indicates who is in control through a system of lights on the electrical panel. Red means stop; green means go. When you become the driver, your side gets the green light.

This dual-action design facilitates communication between the two users, as it provides a very overt signal as to when control has been shifted. Never again will programmers at Datascope have to share a single keyboard or try to guess who is in control.

Caster Wheels

custom-designed pair programming desk caster wheel custom-designed pair programming desk caster

All three legs rest on low-profile caster wheels, making the entire device portable. We used the lathes in Northwestern's machine shop to make special adapters which allow the casters to plug directly into the table legs' threaded leveling mechanisms.

Datascope values flexibility as a company, a trait visible throughout their downtown Chicago workspace. Rolling desks and whiteboards float around the office on a daily basis, covered with a sea of constantly shifting notes. Our easily moved desk fits with this ideal of corporate flexibility, as well as offering more tangible benefits like allowing programmers to escape the sun's glare.

For more about the DuoDesk, here is the team's full report.

About the Team

Kyle Richards

Kyle Richards is an entering sophomore at Northwestern studying mechanical engineering and economics. He spends his spare time designing and building racecars as a member of Northwestern Formula Racing.

Miles Kurtz

Miles Kurtz is a rising sophomore from Port Washington, NY studying Materials Science and Psychology. He has experience with user centered design through Design for America at Northwestern.

Jeremy Piech

Jeremy Piech is a rising sophomore studying chemical engineering at Northwestern University. Outside the classroom, he plays for the Northwestern ultimate frisbee team.

Theodore Truong

Theodore Truong is a rising sophomore currently enrolled in the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. He's interested in the field of Chemical Engineering and is hoping to find a place in pharmaceutical and medical companies.

contributors to this post

headshot of Brian Lange
headshot of Laurie Skelly
headshot of Mike Stringer