Activity Theory

Part one

Activity theory original article.

“…a powerful and clarifying descriptive tool rather than a strongly predictive theory. The object of activity theory is to understand the unity of consciousness and activity…Activity theorists argue that consciousness is not a set of discrete disembodied cognitive acts (decision making, classification, remembering), and certainly it is not the brain; rather, consciousness is located in everyday practice: you are what you do.” – Bonnie Nardi

Activity theory while a useful and powerful tool has proved to be rather difficult to get my head round, while writing out the blog post I often found that I was unable to put into words exactly the way I understood it, so is have chosen to borrow heavily from the original text as this has an excellent way of demonstrating many of the points along with some images and diagrams. However over all the theory has proved that it can be very useful for HCD project as it is designed to look at the very core how why a user or human will perform the acts they are performing allowing to better analyse and “hear” the needs of the user. Below is a short description of the theory to explain it and some other notes I took away from the theory.

An example taken from the text showing how subject and object work with each other “Undoubtedly, whether or not a person can solve a math problem depends on the nature of the problem (e.g., how difficult it is) and the person’s abilities and skills (i.e., how good the person is at math). In the long run, however, the opposite is also true: both the object and the subject are over time transformed by the activity. It is apparent, for instance, that a person’s math skills are a result of previous experience: they have developed through solving math problems in the past. In other words, while it is true that a person’s math abilities determine how the person solves math problems, it is also true that solving math problems determine the person’s math abilities. Therefore, subjects do not only express themselves in their activities; in a very real sense they are produced by the activities (cf. Rubinshtein, 1986).”


The subject or user interacts with the world through interacting (activities) with objects. A subject in this case can be any kind of entity from an individual (subject) looking to solve a maths problem. However the subject could the managing team of a design agency (the subject) looking to increase profits (the object). While the object in this case is intangible to a degree it has its “objective meaning” determined by its relationship with the subject and other objects and the “outcome” of the object is achieved through activities Performed by the subject.

“Therefore, the principle of object-orientedness states that all human activities are directed toward their objects and are differentiated from one another by their respective objects.”

Hierarchical structure

The hierarchical structure in its simplest form starts with a motive, this will determine the goal which is affected by the conditions, on the other side of this hierarchy the motive generates the activity, which is composed of an action, which is in turn composed of operations. So while the motive generates the activity, the goal results in the action and the condition determines the operations.


“In particular, people are usually aware of their goals and can report or express them in a certain way. Then the analysis can be expanded both “up”, to progressively higher level goals and, ultimately, motives, and “down”, to sub-goals and operations.” This allows for extremely in depth research for the HCD project when framing people’s actions using activity theory.


Tool mediation is “the use of tools is a form of accumulation and transmission of social, cultural knowledge. Tools not only shape the external behaviour. As discussed below, through internalization they also influence the mental functioning of individuals.” In activity theory we use tools in our activities and to achieve our goals but the tools also affect the subject “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

“It is mediation which has made Homo sapiens such a successful species: while we do not have sharp claws and thick fur, we compensate that by employing mediating artefacts, such as hammers, knives, and warm clothes.” Mediation is closed linked to cyborg theory.

Externalization and internalization

Again in their simplest forms, Internalization is the change from counting on fingers into counting inside your head. While Externalisation is sketching out a design or essentially taking and internal activity and making it external. These states are both transitions, part of the dynamics of activity.


Development states that everything analysed through activity theory must be recognised to be changing and developing, since the theory is aimed at understating activity and subjects the fact that the world and technology along with the social conventions and goals are shifted must be taken into account. The whole system is also an integrated system, it is very hard to grasp and singular part of the theory without also having to reflect on all the other elements which are linked to it.




Activity Theory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s