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Activity theory and HCI. Victor Kaptelinin. 2002-11-08. Outline. Introduction Two waves of HCI Post-cognitivist HCI: Second-wave theories Activity theory as a middle ground An overview of basic principles The Activity Checklist UMEA. Wave I: The cognitive approach.

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victor kaptelinin

Activity theory and HCI

Victor Kaptelinin


  • Introduction
  • Two waves of HCI
  • Post-cognitivist HCI: Second-wave theories
  • Activity theory as a middle ground
  • An overview of basic principles
  • The Activity Checklist
  • UMEA
wave i the cognitive approach
Wave I: The cognitive approach
  • The focus on user interface
  • Experimental studies of factors underlying efficient human-computer interaction
  • Models of the user
  • Usability criteria and techniques
wave ii from human factors to human actors bannon 1991
Wave II:From human factors to human actors (Bannon, 1991)
  • From product to process in research and design
  • From individuals to groups
  • From the laboratory to the workplace
  • From novices to experts
  • From analysis to design
  • From user-centered to user-involved design
  • From user requirements specifications to iterative design
wave iii beyond
Wave III: Beyond...
  • Beyond work: learning, play, entertainment
  • Beyond adults: Children as design partners
  • Beyond general purpose computers: Ubiquitous computing
  • Beyond tools: Persuasive technologies, etc.
  • Beyond HCI: web design, interaction design, etc.
  • … and beyond
from ui to work to life

human being(s)






From UI to work to life...





what is activity theory
What is activity theory?
  • A psychological approach based on cultural-historical psychology
  • An interdisciplinary framework
  • An approach to the complex phenomena of purposeful use of information technologies by individual and groups in social context
what activity theory is not
What activity theory is not
  • Activity theory is a framework for thinking about activity, not a finished body of a theory
  • A conceptual framework, not strongly predictive theory
  • An analytical tool, not a cookbook for design and evaluation
why activity theory
Why activity theory?
  • The extending scope of HCI and CSCW research
  • Studying context (from ”Situated actions” to ”Contextual Design” and beyond)
  • Focus on ”user experiences”
  • HCI and CSCW in search of a conceptual framework
a summary of the basic principles of activity theory
A summary of the basic principles of activity theory
  • Object - relatedness
  • Hierarchical structure of activity
  • Internalization/externalization
  • Mediation
  • Development
object relatedness
Object - relatedness
  • Subject and object
  • Unity of material and ideal world.
  • Another example: become a doctor
    • transform one’s own mind and body to enact medical skills
hierarchical structure of activity
Hierarchical structure of activity
  • Activities and motives
    • conscious and unconscious
  • Actions and goals
    • conscious
  • Operations and conditions
    • unconscious, habitual
  • Poly-motivation
internalization externalization
Internalization/ externalization
  • Mental processes vs. external behavior
  • The nature and functions of internalization
  • The nature and functions of externalization
  • Intra-subjectivity vs. inter-subjectivity
  • Internal/external and individual/social: two separate dimensions of human activity
two dimensions of human activity
Two dimensions of human activity

individual - social

Image of the World

Internal Plane of










  • Language and technology mediate human experience
  • Accumulation and transmission of social experience
  • Mediation of external and internal activities
  • Technical tools and psychological tools
  • Functional organs
  • Object of study and research methodology
  • Practice as a result of historical development
  • Types of development and methods of their study
  • Zone of Proximal Development
the zone of proximal development
The Zone of Proximal Development

"The distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers"

Lev Vygotsky

beyond individual activities
Beyond individual activities
  • Hierarchy of motives
  • Collective subjects and activity systems : two perspectives on supra-individual activities
basic principles of activity theory a summary
Basic principles of activity theory: A summary
  • Tools are used by active subjects (individuals, groups, organizations) who interact with the world to achieve their goals
  • Subjects have hierarchies of goals which reflect, on the one hand, higher-level objectives and their tradeoffs, and, on the other hand, available resources
  • Subjects are shaped by their activities—having an impact on their social/cultural environment, subjects impact themselves
  • Human experience is crystallized in tools and is transmitted to other people by mediating their activities
  • Human activities undergo various kinds of developmental transformations
a historical overview
A historical overview
  • 1991 "Through the interface" by Susanne Bødker
  • 1992 Plenary session at the EWHCI'92 Conference (S. Petersburg, Russia)
  • 1995 A workshop at the Third Decennial "Computers in Context" Conference (Aarhus, Denmark)
  • 1996 Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction, MIT Press, ed., Bonnie Nardi
  • 1998 ISCRAT Conference, June 7-11, Denmark
  • 2001 Special Issue Journal CSCW on activity theory and design, B. Nardi and D. Redmiles, eds.
  • 2002 ISCRAT Conference, 18-22 June, Amsterdamaz
at and hci main directions of research
AT and HCI:Main directions of research
  • Retrospective analyses based on activity theory
  • Computer-Supported Cooperative Work
  • Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning
  • Participatory design, scenario-based design, and industrial design
  • Activity-based workplace studies and design
  • Interface design
  • Developmental work research
  • Information systems
the overall structure of the checklist
The overall structure of the Checklist
  • Part 1. Means and ends
  • Part 2. The environment
  • Part 3. Learning, cognition and articulation
  • Part 4. Development
part 1 means and ends
Part 1. Means and ends
  • Human beings have hierarchies of goals which emerge from attempts to meet their needs under current circumstances. Understanding the use of any technology should start with identifying the goals of target actions, which are relatively explicit, and then extending the scope of analysis both "up" (to higher-level actions and activities) and "down" (to lower level actions and operations).
part 2 the environment
Part 2. The environment
  • Human beings live in the social, cultural world. They achieve their motives and goals by active transformation of objects in their environments. This section of the checklist identifies the objects involved in target activities and constitutes the environment of the use of target technology.
part 3 learning cognition and articulation
Part 3. Learning, cognition and articulation
  • Activities include both internal (mental) and external components which can transform into each other. Computer systems should support both internalization of new ways of action and articulation of mental processes, when necessary, to facilitate problem solving and social coordination

Part 4. Development

  • Activities undergo permanent developmental transformations. Analysis of the history of target activities can help to reveal the main factors influencing the development. Analysis of potential changes in the environment can help to anticipate their effect on the structure of target activities

Main issues in analysis

  • Functionality
  • Flexibility
  • Learning
  • Collaboration
  • Personal/ Social Spaces
  • Breakdowns
  • User resistance
  • Power differences
  • etc
space mission as an activity the case of apollo 13
Space mission as an activity: the case of Apollo 13
  • collective activity
  • “pre-processed activity”
  • shift from one activity to another after the breakdown
  • Suggestion 1: Video monitoring of Apollo 13 from the inside and the outside, so that people at Mission Control could watch the spacecraft and the astronauts.
  • Suggestion 2: Shared goal-specific representations indicating sub-goals, priorities, distribution of responsibilities, and available resources.
  • Suggestion 3: Support of decision making (primarily by the head of Mission Control and those immediately responsible for the decision) with explicit representation of options and consequences associated with a specific problem.
  • Suggestion 4: Support of meaningful interpretation of instrumentation data
  • Suggestion 5: Dedicated human assistants for astronauts
  • Suggestion 6: Systematic preliminary check of potential conflicts and breakdowns at each phase of the mission
umea user monitoring environment for activities
UMEA: User-Monitoring Environment for Activities
  • Applications as environments: Coping with multiple information hierarchies
  • Supporting Higher-Level User Actions: Existing Approaches
    • Personal information management systems
    • Dedicated project spaces
    • Non-hierarchical information space architectures
  • The UMEA approach: Converting interaction histories into project contexts
  • minimize overhead and make the benefits of creating project environments apparent to the user;
  • integrate personal information management, communication, and management of tools and materials;
  • capitalize upon actual work practices of users.

project-tagged interaction history



project context


PIM tools



resource lists


COM add-in DLL

MS Office



user interface minimized overview
User interface: Minimized overview

docu -ments

fol – ders

resourcemenu buttons

project icons


con -tacts



project panel

resource panel

an example use scenario
An example use scenario

-- the user launches the UMEA application;

  • decides, which project to focus on;
  • selects a project and opens necessary resources;
  • continues working on the project, i.e., opens and saves documents, sends emails, etc;
  • file names, etc, are automatically added to respective lists of resources; PIM entries are automatically linked to the project;
  • when the user switches to another project, he or she gets an immediate access to PIM tools and resources related to that project.
main advantages
Main advantages
  • an access to various types of resources related to a project “from one place”,
  • an overview of ongoing projects,
  • a possibility to instantly switch back and forth between projects, and
  • the help provided by the system in recalling the context of a project, which made it easier to resume working on the project after a break.
main problems
Main problems
  • the need to manually clean up resource lists and/or interaction histories from time to time to delete irrelevant items,
  • some participants experienced difficulties with understanding the user interface and the functionality of the system
prospects for future work
Prospects for future work
  • Heuristics
  • Two challenges
  • New directions of development