Activity Theory

Part 2

Activity theory original article.

Activity Theory, collaboration and analysis

In my last entry I was looking main at how activity theory works and the various elements which go into making it up. Here I will look at activity theory as it relates to groups and collaboration, then go onto discuss activity theory in HCI. After that I will briefly describe how it is already used in a similar manner as human centered design.

The model for the theory when collaboration and group work is added in is below. By following the lines and reasoning like the first model you can begin to see how each of these steps influence and effect each other within the model. For example the subject must follow the rules, whiles the rules let that particular subject know the confines they must work in. While the subject also has a part in the division of labour the division of labour also has an effect on the subject and so forth. When large projects or multiple teams are working together it is entirely acceptable to use multiple different models which work together to produce different outcomes which will eventually link to become a complete outcome.

Activity theory model complete (���¶m)
Activity theory model complete (���¶m)

“A key tenet of Engestrom’s framework is that activity systems are constantly developing. The development is understood in a dialectical sense as a process driven by contradictions. Engestrom identifies four types of contradictions in activity systems:

  1. Primary contradictions are inner contradictions of each of the nodes of an activity system. For instance, the mediating means used by a physician include various medications which, on the one hand, have certain medical effects, and, on the other hand, are products with associated costs, legal regulations, distribution channels, etc.
  2. Secondary contradictions are those that arise between the nodes of an activity system. For instance, a certain type of medical treatment may be unsuitable for certain patients
  3. Tertiary contradictions describe potential problems emerging in the relationship between the existing forms of an activity system and its potential, more advanced object and outcome. The advancement of an activity system as a whole may be undermined by the resistance to change, demonstrated by the existing organization of the activity system.
  4. Finally, quaternary contradictions refer to contradictions within a network of activity systems, that is, between an activity system and other activity systems involved in the production of a joint outcome.”

Activity theory in HCI

Activity theory only started to gain popularity within HCI in the early 1990’s as the limitations in information processing psychology become obvious. This was also as HCI was expanded to include the larger scope of areas which would come to fall under the purview of HCI such as motivations of users, social context and content etc.

“The impact of activity theory on HCI and interaction design in the last two decades has been, essentially, threefold. First, the theory offered some general theoretical insights that resonated with the need for a richer conceptual framework which would allow the field to move from the “first-wave HCI” to the “second-wave HCI” (see Cooper and Bowers, 1995). Second, it served as an analytical framework for design and evaluation of concrete interactive systems and stimulated the development of a variety of analytical tools. Third and finally, the application of the approach, especially in recent years, resulted in a number of novel systems, implementing the ideas of activity-centric (or activity-based) computing.”

What I hadn’t come across before was the idea of activity theory being turned into an analytical tool and design aid in the form of check lists and other tools. This brings it more and more into almost direct competition with the idea of human centered design which the project is being built around. However activity theory focuses more on the fact the user will be using the computer or software as a meditation tool to come to an outcome, rather than as an outcome itself.

While human centered design in the form I have followed does take into account many of same considerations it also seems to be lacking some of the depth and also the durability of a more modern(?) model such as activity theory. Don Norman of Apple has indeed said that activity theory centric design should completely supersede human centered design. Ultimately both concepts are not predicative “theories” but instead are developed in order to help designers to better understand what they are designing for. Moving forward from here I intend to further research activity theory and attempt to draw from it elements which could best be integrated into human centered design, my ultimately goal here is retain the ease and usability of the IDEO human centered design approach but include the focus and depth afforded by activity theory. Obviously more research is needed.


Activity Theory

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