Activity Theory as a potential framework for human-computer interaction research

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Citation: Kari Kuutti (1995) Activity Theory as a potential framework for human-computer interaction research. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction (RSS)

Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) HCI (RSS), CSCW (RSS), Psychology (RSS), Activity Theory (RSS)


Kari Kuutti is a Finish HCI and CSCW researcher. This is the introductory chapter of a book on activity theory edited by the HCI and CSCW researcher Bonnie Nardi. The point of the chapter is to introduce the history and core concepts behind activity to a CSCW audience and to argue that it offers a solution to a series of problems raised by information-processing cognitive psychology, the dominant theoretical framework used in HCI up until that point. The paper serves a basic introduction to activity theory.

The paper is framed through a review of information-processing cognitive psychology. The chapter makes a strong case that information processing has been disappointing in HCI research. Although it seemed promising, Kuutti argues that research has been strongly disconnected from theory and that the only clear takeaway is that humans are limited in their cognitive capacity and that designers should not overload them. Kuutti reviews some of the work in this area (and focuses on Liam Bannon's work) and concludes that what is needed is "better contextuality."

Kuutti points to Activity Theory as a potential answer. Activity theory is neither focused on activities in general nor is it an explicit theory in the sense that it leads to predictive result. Instead, it is more of a framework for clearly describing and breaking down work and for understanding a users actions in context.

Kuutti argues for three key principles of AT:

  • Activities are the basic units of analysis.
  • Activities have a history and are developed are not static entities and this context is necessary to understand them.
  • An activity always contacts artifacts such as physical objects and laws, rules, routines, and procedures which play a mediating role.

Context is key because it allows one to understand how and why something is being done. Kuutti borrows an example from Leontjev (1978) to argue that one cannot understand bush-beaters in a hunting party unless one can look at the larger activity of hunting.

The basic model includes at least three levels where there are high level activities associated with motives (e.g., building a house or completing a software project). At the next level down these are associated with actions (e.g., fixing a roof or programming a module or arranging a meeting) which are associated with goals. At the next level below are operations which are essential subconscious things one does that might be hammering or using operating systems commands.

At each level there are tools (which may or may not be physically instantiated or may also be ideas), objects (which will be transformed into outcomes and are the materials of an action, operation, or activity), actors, rules, community, and the division of labor. Kuutti argues that HCI has been focused (although perhaps not as much as it should be) on the support of operations or on helping turn actions into operations, but has paid little attention to supporting higher level actions and activities.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

Activity theory was and remains an important area witihin HCI and CSCW in particular.