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
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
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.