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Activity Theory and Its Application to Information Systems
Information Architecture  |   Link

Recently on the SIGIA List, I posted a request for information on people's use of activity theory to inform the application development of information systems. I received a few responses and one I hope to continue to add to.

From: Ariel Guersenzvaig [mailto:ariel@sqr.nl]

An excellent AT resource from University of Colorado at Denver (School of
Education), enphasis on learning, and cognitive and social sciences:

Information Technology in Human Activity
Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems:

From: Todd Wilkens [mailto:tpodd@tpodd.com]

Chalmers, M. et al, (1998) "The Order of Things:
Activity-Centered Information Access", Proceedings of the
7th Intl. Conf. on the Word Wide Web, Brisbane...

Matthew Chalmers has lots of other good stuff on activity
theory and social navigation too. Check out his
publicaction list.

Dourish, P. (2001) Where the Action Is: The Foundations of
Embodied Interaction, MIT Press: Cambridge. QA76.9 .H85 D68

If you want more references for the Soc. Nav. stuff, let me
know. I've done two papers on it recently so I could save
you some trouble.

From: albert.m.selvin@verizon.com [mailto:albert.m.selvin@verizon.com]

See the work of CSCW theorists such as Liam Bannon and his many co-authors.
Lots of stuff there. Also many of the Participatory Design writers such as
Joan Greenbaum are heavily influenced by AT.

From: Alastair Campbell [mailto:ac@nomensa.com]
Hi Lisa, My HCI lecturer Yvonne Rogers at Sussex University (UK) has quite an interest in Activity theory, you can find her publications here http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/yvonner/ with publications like: "Activity Theory, Groupware and Student Groupwork. In CSCL 2002." and the articles I've attached. She and a couple of others have recently released a book (http://www.id-book.com/) on Interaction Design which I would assume covers activity theory somewhere. I'll let you know when it arrives! Hope this helps, -Alastair >

First attachment
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 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.

Second attachment:
Towards Flexible Support for Cooperation:
Group Awareness in Shared Workspaces

Tom Gross
Institute of Computer Science
Johannes Kepler University of Linz
Altenbergerstr. 69, 4040 Linz, Austria

Third attachment:
Proceedings of ECSCW'97 Conference, Lancaster UK, September 1997.
Plans as Situated Action: An Activity Theory Approach to Workflow Systems
Jakob E. Bardram | bardram@daimi.aau.dk
Computer Science Department, Aarhus University and Kommunedata I/S, Denmark.

Fourth attachment:
What is activity theory?

Posted on March 24, 2002 11:05 AM