Jax Wechsler

Activity Theory: the value of frameworks

Last year I undertook a compulsory unit at uni in qualitative research methodology.It got me thinking about the research we do to inform the design of applications we develop and the value of using a framework for research.

I learned about how we all bring assumptions to our research as a consequence of our perspectives and how no qualitative research can never ever be truly objective, particularly social research.

When doing research it is vital to be aware of your theoretical assumptions and to design a study that enables analysis of associated factors.

Considering your assumptions

For my assignment in this subject, I undertook a pilot research study connected with my work. My research question was a case study which looked at ‘How can we improve the documentation system for the specification of online projects within a commercial context?’ As part of this research the consideration of a knowledge sharing system of sorts, I first needed to consider ‘what is knowledge?’. My research method and analysis would need to support my answer to this question.

+ Is knowledge something that is like an object? i.e. external to and independent from individuals, that can be passed from one person to another?

+ Is knowledge something that resides within the minds of individuals? i.e. something embedded within people whereby thinking transforms information into knowledge, where knowledge involves the sharing of information to yield knowledge.

+ Is knowledge something that is contextually and socially constructed? i.e. knowledge is socially and contextually constructed, whereby knowledge is embedded within a community rather that within individuals.

I favour the 3rd perspective ….and indeed I would argue too that technology design (as within web and mobile devices) these days needs to consider both social and contextual factors.

This study also necessitated thinking about assumptions about collaboration and the role of artifacts to facilitate work and share knowledge. There is some really interesting literature about artifacts as ‘boundary objects’ (Star SL & Griesemer JR (1989)), i.e. objects that communicate knowledge across domains.

With my assumptions in mind I decided to use the meta-theoretical lens of Activity Theory to guide my research and have since decided that Activity Theory can provide a very useful framework to do design research within design for computer mediated activities and Service Design.

Activity Theory

Activity Theory takes ‘activities’ as it’s main unit of analysis taking into account the larger social and contextual systems that activities occur in. Unlike related frameworks of ‘task analysis‘ which does not consider people’s innate knowledge required of users and ‘user modeling‘ which doesn’t take context into account.

Activity Theory acknowledges the relationship between activities and their broader social and physical contexts, through itʼs consideration of activities within the context of a broader activity system comprised of other actors, mediating artifacts, social rules, division of labour, as well as other related activity systems.

It was  written about by Engestorm (in Perspectives on Activity Theory in 1999) and later applied to the design and development of IT systems by Kaptelinin and Nardi in 2006 (in their book Acting with Technology.

Activity Theory has two underlying assumptions;
1) that human cognition emerges and exists within context of an individuals interactions with the world and can only be understood in terms of these interactions or activities,

2) activity is culturally and socially determined. It focuses on the interaction between consciousness and human activity within particular activity systems or contexts.
Below you can see a model by Engestrom and some descriptions explaining this model.

Node Description
Mediating artefacts A tool that mediates the relationship between the subject and the object, which caries the history of the relationship. It can refer to a plan, an idea, a sketch or a theory. An object created by a subject becomes a mediating artifact for another actor within the activity system.
Objects In order to reach an outcome it is necessary to produce certain objects (e.g. experiences, knowledge, and physical products); they connect a subjectsʼ actions to the collective activity; something that can be shared for manipulation which can be tangible or intangible, for example, physical objects (e.g. products), soft objects (e.g. computer programs), conceptual objects (e.g. theories or models). The transformation of an object is the motive of the activity.
Social Rules Social rules which effect the activity and are imposed by the other actors including the larger organisational and professional communities.
Other Actors Involved Other actors, often called communities refers to other actors that mediate the activity. Often subjectsʼ are members of multiple communities within the organisation of which have influence on their work.
Division of Labour Activities usually involve a division of labour which are often negotiated between actors. As (Suchman 1983) notes that the actual division of labour at work often differs from those prescribed by the organisational structure .

For the interviews I did I asked questions relating to these nodes and noticed that I was able to get a holistic view of the system in question from my various respondents. I was able to use this model to see emerging patterns and felt that I got a very thorough and well rounded understanding of the state of play as well as the different needs and motivations of my respondents. I found it a very valuable tool to help guide my research and analysis.

OK….so how is all this theoretical academic stuff to UX?

These days IT systems never function within a bubble. Particularly with the fact that many people access IT systems in multiple contexts using multiple devices. For example mobile applications usually need to be divided for fragmented attention, they need to be able to picked up and put down at any given moment, and they are often used in social situations, and these devices also often “socialise” with other devices too! Perhaps we need to think more about the dimensions Activity Theory posits? How do social factors influence the contexts of your products use? It’s not really about the relationship between a “user” and a “system” now really is it?

Nardi maintains that “activity cannot be understood without understanding the role of artifacts in everyday existence, especially the way that artifacts are integrated into social practice” (Nardi, 1996, p.14). Activity Theory provides a framework to do research to inform the design of new IT systems whereby by taking the perspective of different actors within the system, a subjects’ view can compliment a systems’ view….. yielding a more detailed picture of the different contexts and actors that you are designing for.

It is in this way, Activity Theory offers a complimentary theoretical framework to consider computer supported activities and HCI research.


Engestrom, Y. 1999, Perspectives on Activity Theory, Cambridge     University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Kaptelinin, V., Nardi, B. 2006, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction     Design, MIT Press, London, England.

Kutti, K. 1996, “Activity Theory as a potential framework for Human-Computer-Interaction     Research” in Nardi, B. (ed) 1996, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and     Human Computer Interaction, MIT Press, London, England, pp 16-44.

Nardi, B. (ed.) 1996, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human Computer Interaction, MIT Press, London, England.

Starr, S.L. & Griesemer, J.R. 1989,’Institutional Ecology,‘Translations’ and Boundary     Objects: Amateurs and Professionals’ in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology,     1907-39’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 19, pp. 387-420.

Suchman, L., 1983, “Office procedure as practical action: Models of work and system     design.”, ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems, vol. 1, no. 4, pp     320-328.

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