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Activity theory For interface design Professor Dr. L. Uden. Objectives Discuss the principles of activity theory Discuss the implications of activity for CSCW Describe uses of AT in CSCW & HCI Discuss activity checklist. Principles of activity theory (after Kaptelinin)

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Activity theory

For interface design

Professor Dr. L. Uden


  • Discuss the principles of activity theory

  • Discuss the implications of activity for CSCW

  • Describe uses of AT in CSCW & HCI

  • Discuss activity checklist

Principles of activity theory

(after Kaptelinin)


Tool mediation

Internalization and externalization

Historical development




human activity is to be understood as continuously developing object-oriented individual and collective processes or actions that transform the object of activity into a desired outcome.

refers to the need to focus on the ‘object’ of activity when trying to understand human practices, since “transforming the ‘object’ into an outcome motivates the existence of an activity” (Kuutti, 1996).

The motive of human activity is reflected through the ‘object’ or ‘objective’ of that


‘object’ in this thesis is used in the sense of the ‘objective’ so as to reflect and emphasise the purposeful nature of human activity.

implies that human beings always have a motive for engaging in activity.

Whilst participating in an activity, individuals tend to have various and differing motives for getting involved in activity.

Tool mediation ‘object’ or ‘objective’ of that

It presents the view that human beings develop and use tools to help them achieve targeted objectives.

tools are used by human to mediate’ their interactions with objects of the environment during activity.

Tools therefore, have a mediating role in human activity.

‘tools’ as mediators of human activity is used in the literature to refer to both physical and psychological tools

Historical Development ‘object’ or ‘objective’ of that

activity develops and re-develops as a result of social and cultural changes that occur in the community where it is performed.

As a result of this transformation, human activity accumulates a history of its development.

It is necessary to understand the evolutionary aspects of human activity from a social and cultural point of view.

This understanding could be accomplished analysing the historical development of activity so as to establish the reasons why activity is carried out in a particular way.

This could offer insight into the reasons for ‘object’ or ‘objective’ of that

introducing the kind of tools being used in that activity.

Understanding the historical development and use of tools that mediate activity demands the need to study activity in a particular context so as to understand how people use already existing tools within that cultural setting.

Internalisation and externalisation ‘object’ or ‘objective’ of that

human mental processes develop and redevelop as a result of external activity during which time humans internalise cultural knowledge about an activity.

The existence of the ‘external’ and the internal’ implies that a transformation process occurs in the human mental perceptions of the activity.

In HCI, this internalisation process is the means by which computer tool users form metaphors or internal mental representations of both the activity that they are engaged in, and also the usage patterns for the computer tool employed to mediate that activity.

the kind of knowledge absorbed during the internalisation process could reveal the historical methods of carrying out that activity.

it could also unveil vital information as to why that activity takes place, including the

development and use of tools to mediate that activity.

Once this information is sorted and absorbed ‘inside’ the individual’s head, human beings then externalise (put outside the head) this knowledge by actually carrying out that activity for real using physical tools (e.g. a hammer).

These could relate to how to represent the individual’s conceptualised world into a

‘real’ world that can be shared collectively with others involved in that activity.

Effective representation of the conceptual world into a real world would require the development and use of appropriate tools both physical and psychological (e.g. computer tools, mental models, language) to help users to collectively create and share the conceptual world.

conceptualised world into aA person’s internal activity assimilates the experience of humanity in the form in which it manifests itself in the corresponding external activity… It means that a person’s mental processes acquire a structure necessarily linked to socio-historically formed means and modes, which are transmitted to him by other people through teamwork and social intercourse” (Kuutti in Nardi, 1996, page 33, quoting from Leont’ev, 1974).

Consciousness conceptualised world into a

is associated with the emotional aspects and awareness of human intentions when studying activity.

The notion of consciousness therefore reflects the principle unit of human mind and activity.

Implies that human mind can only be understood within the context of meaningful goal oriented and socially determined actions.

Context conceptualised world into a

reflects the situatedness or contextual aspect of human activity.

Activity Theory argues that human activity is better understood when analysed in the context of the community in which it is performed.

Activity is usually carried out not in isolation but in collaboration with others within the community.

Even in situations whereby an individual performs certain activities alone, they tend to carry out these in a context or a situation where there are rules and conditions that determine the way activity is performed.

Key points from Activity Theory that are crucial to HCI are: conceptualised world into a

The motives of those involved in activity

• Relationships that exist amongst those involved in activity

• The historical development of an activity

• Implicit and explicit social practices of the context in which activity is carried out

• The operational structure of an activity

• Issues surrounding the development and use of tools to support activity.

Activity theory for cscw
Activity Theory for CSCW conceptualised world into a

  • Activity Theory conceptualises working as an active, purposive endeavour.

    • Expertise is distributed within a community of practitioners, but activity systems achieve their coherency by virtue of the shared object of activity that unites participants.

    • Neither social cooperation nor workplace technologies can sensibly be understood in isolation from the purposive nature of the activity system of which they are a part.

  • Expertise is ‘situated’. conceptualised world into a

    • The process of ‘knowing’ is related to the process of ‘interpretation’.

  • Rather than studying technologies, communities or individuals in isolation from each other, activity theory emphasises how activities are intimately inter-related with the systems through which they are enacted.

    • Collective learning occurs with engagement, and new mediating devices may precipitate new learning.

  • CSCW technologies in particular and computer systems in general cannot be studied in isolation from the core activities they are intended to support and that technologies themselves help sustain particular conceptions of activities.

  • How activity theory is used to develop a cscw application
    How Activity Theory is used to develop a CSCW application the elements of an activity system can provide major opportunities for engagement and dialogue.

    • Work activity is a basic element in analysing organisation.

      • Allow the analysis to span from the individual to an organisational-wide level and even broader.

      • Far more flexible than the concept of formal organisation.

      • It is possible to study formal organisational units as activities - to the extent that a community of active subjects sharing the same object can be found.

    • The concept of activity makes it easy to cross any departmental, organisational or geographical borders - only belonging to the group of active subjects sharing an object is significant.

    • The structure of the activity concepts is used to generate a classification of basic types of work support as follows:

    Use of activity theory in cscw
    Use of Activity Theory in CSCW departmental, organisational or geographical borders - only belonging to the group of active subjects sharing an object is significant.

    • Multilevelness

      • using AT it is possible to discuss issues belonging to different levels within an integrated framework.

    • Interaction in Social Context

      • content and sense making in contexts has become implicit in research.

      • AT and the concept of activity seem to be particularly suited to being used as a starting point in studying contextually embedded interactions.

      • AT contains many features - the recognition of actors, mediation, historicity, constructivity, dynamics and others.

    • Dynamics and development departmental, organisational or geographical borders - only belonging to the group of active subjects sharing an object is significant.

    • In CSCW, little has been learned about the formation of new operations, sense-making and creation of new actions, or ultimately, reconfiguring. Entire activities could be supported by information technology.

      • the reason is a lack of framework and theories capable of dealing with developmental and dynamic feature of human practices.

      • AT offers a promising avenue of thought because the ideas of change and development are fundamental to it.

      • the potentials for using action-operation dynamics.

    At for hci
    AT for HCI departmental, organisational or geographical borders - only belonging to the group of active subjects sharing an object is significant.

    • AT provides a model for humans in their social and organisational context.

    • AT demands that activities are always studied in situ, taking into account the political, economic, social and cultural realities.

    • Conceptual concepts in AT are collective activity and tool mediation.

    • The holistic nature of activity provides an understandable focal point fir cross-disciplinary discussion without worrying about lower levels of detail where language and emphasis may differ.

    • The model of activity, comprising subject, tool, object and community provides a useful framework for identifying stakeholders in an application and the relationships between them.

    • Activity theory hierarchy enables subjects to consider alternative sets of actions and operations to carry out the activity in a way that suits the specific goals and conditions of the situation.

    • The purpose of tool mediation is much more useful to the study of HCI than traditional methods.The user interface should not be conceptualised by designers as independent from the activities it is intended to support.

    Activity checklist
    Activity Checklist community provides a useful framework for identifying stakeholders in an application and the relationships between them.

    • Activity Theory provides several basic principles for HCI, but they are abstract when it comes to using them for actual design and evaluation.

    • an activity checklist makes concrete the conceptual system of activity for the specific tasks of design and evaluation.

    • Is intended to elucidate the most important conceptual factors of CSCW design.

    • Is a guide to the specific areas to which a designer should be paying attention when trying to understand the context in which a tool is, or will be used.

    • Checklist lays out a kind of contextual design space by representing the key areas of context specified by activity theory.

    • Activity checklist is intended to be used at early phases of system design or for evaluating existing systems.

    • Two types of checklist: design and evaluation checklists.

    • Covers a large space.

    • Is intended to be used first by examining the whole space for areas of interest, then focusing on identifying areas of interest in as much depth as possible.

    • The general strategy is breadth-first consideration of the relevant areas of context enumerated in the checklist, followed by a ‘drilling down’ into specific areas that should yield rich results given the tools and problems at hand.

    • Structure of the checklist reflects the five basic principles of Activity Theory.

      • Object-orientedness,

      • hierarchical structure of activity,

      • internalisation and externalisation.

      • Mediation

      • development.

    • Four principles on the use of ‘target technology’ to be designed or evaluated.

      • Means and ends - the extent to which the technology facilitates and constrains the achievement of users’ goals and the impact of the technology on provoking or resolving conflicts between different goals.

      • Social and physical aspects of the environment - integration of target technology with requirements, tools, resources and social values of the environment.

      • Learning, cognition and articulation - internal versus external components of activity and support for their mutual transformations with target technology.

      • Development - developmental transformation of the foregoing components as a whole.

    Using the checklist
    Using the checklist designed or evaluated.

    • Should be used in combination with other techniques.

      • Can help identify the most relevant issues to be covered in the interview or to make sure important problems are not overlooked in a discussion of empirical data in an observational study.

    • Should not imply it should be used linearly, by focusing on isolated items one by one,

      • practitioners should look for patterns of related items, even if these items belong to different sections.

    Activity Checklist designed or evaluated.