I am writing this blog post after a failed online search for a clear, concise, yet sufficient explanation of design tensions in instructional design. Here’s my attempt at such an explanation, along with my acknowledgement that this can be said more elegantly. I hope for a better definition from someone out there because I am not strong in this area, and I know others are (eg: Deborah Tatar — see citation at the bottom.)
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. 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. One has to know what the problem is in order to solve it, no? (Not sure on that one, but it sounds good to me so far). Like is said in many contexts, defining the problem is half the battle.
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.
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.