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Design Tensions

I am writing this blog post after a failed online search for a clear, concise, yet sufficient explanation of design tensions in instructional design. Deborah Tater’s 2007 definition is here, but it’s a fair bit longer than mine. Of course, her’s is also said more elegantly.

Design tensions are relationships between design components or features that are linked such that when one is repaired, improved or changed, another fails, is altered, or rendered ineffective.

For a general example in education, when designing for a problem-based intervention, too much structure in supporting scaffolds destroys the nature of the problem-based learning by giving away a quick solution, while too little supporting scaffolds may render the intervention impossible or overly frustrating for learners. When combined with the context of varied skill level among learners, the tension arises that as soon as one subset is scaffold-ed, the challenge is rendered meaningless for the others.  Design tensions can be so great as to render the approach infeasible, or alternatively, they may be somehow minimized or balanced in the process of design.

Most importantly for instructional designers, tensions must be identified in order for a problem space to be defined. How one frames a the  design problem is highly related to the resolutions that’s designed (Dorst, from Frame Innovation). This is what makes the act of finding and expressing a design tension so integral to the process of design. It *is* design.

In a design document of any kind, if one says there’s a design tension somewhere in a design, the listener is expecting the next sentence to tell which component or feature impacts which other component, feature or characteristic of the design. AS a reviewer of design cases, I can’t tell you how many times I have read an insightful author describe  something they call a design tension, and fail to express the second half of the tension because it was so obvious to them.

HCI deals with this more explicitly than instructional design. The graphic above is from a book on interaction design by Brian Whitworth with Adnan Ahmad. A full elaboration of the concept of design tensions is available in: Tatar, D. (2007) The Design Tensions Framework. Human–Computer Interaction (22) 4, 413-451.


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