Activity Theory an introduction

Activity Theory originated in the USSR, developed by Russian psychologists Vygotsky, Rubinshtein, Leontjev and Lurija. The theory is a philosophical framework that allows the study of different forms of human practice. The practice can be viewed as developmental processes where both individual and social levels are interlinked.

Activity Theory can be used to provide a broad conceptual framework that can be used to describe the structure, development and context of tasks that are supported by a computerised system. Activity Theory offers the possible integration of many HCI theories and concepts, thus helping to maintain conceptual integrity in terms of design, evaluation and usage.

Activity Theory consists of five basic principles:

The Hierarchical Structure of Activity

Activities are broadly equivalent to HCI "tasks". The unit of analysis can be defined as an activity directed at an object that motivates the activity. The hierarchy has three levels activity, action & operation. Activities can be broken down into goal-directed actions that have to be undertaken in order to satisfy the object. Actions are conscious and are implemented through automatic operations. Activity Theory maintains that the elements of activity are not fixed but can change dynamically as conditions change.


This is not the same as Object-Oriented Design or O-O Programming! The idea of "object" is not limited to physical, chemical & biological properties of entities! Instead it encompasses the socially and culturally determined properties also.


Activities can be either internal or external but they need to be analysed together for a proper understanding to be achieved. Internalisation relates to the human being's ability to imagine, consider alternative approaches to a problem, perform mental simulations. Externalisation transforms an internalised action into an external one.


Human activity is mediated by artefacts tools both internal and external. These tools may be signs, language, instruments or machines. They are created by people and effect control over behaviour. Artefacts have an associated culture and history and permanence that exists across time and space.


Activity Theory requires that the way a human interacts with reality should be analysed within the context of development. Hence the research method is not laboratory experiments but rather formative experiments that combine active participation with the monitoring of the developmental change shown by the study participants.

Further Information