Understanding HCI

Activity Theory

What is Activity Theory?

Activity Theory looks at the entire social and technical system. There are several different Activity Theories. The one we will look at here is Engestrom's. Engestrom's framework for activity theory looks at:

  1. Outcome – that which is ‘achieved’ - begins here
  2. Subject – the individual or group whose viewpoint informs the analysis
  3. Object – the problem situation, or intention at which activity is directed - the object is what the participants think it is
  4. Tools – used by subject to achieve object (e.g. ICT, methods)
  5. Rules – regulations, norms, conventions (explicit & implicit) that constrain activity
  6. Community/actors – individuals or groups other than the subject who have same general object, but are distinct, and with whom subject interacts
  7. Div. of labour – the way tasks are divided up, and the way roles & hierarchies are structured

It is typically depicted as a triangle, the elements are analysed in terms of

  1. relationships between elements
  2. contradictions between elements

relationships

  1. The way in which subject achieves object through use of artifacts /tools
  2. The rules influencing/shaping way in which subject interacts with community
  3. The divisions of labour influencing/shaping how community/other actors strive to achieve object
  4. But also:
    1. How community/other actors relate to artifacts /tools
    2. How rules are related to object
    3. How the subject relates to the division of labour i.e. the framework suggests the relationships we should examine to get a good understanding of technological change activity in context (see Boer at al. 2002, Table 1)

contradictions

Contradictions are tensions or inconsistencies in the activity system. Four levels of contradiction:

  1. primary - within a node (e.g. H-ware unreliable; s-ware bugs)
  2. secondary - between nodes (e.g. people resist using email)
  3. tertiary - between an activity and a remodelled form of that activity at a later date (e.g. from teaching in small labs [x25] to large space [x500])
  4. quaternary - between an activity and a parallel (associated) activity) (e.g. Sales staff do not enter/update customer records, so that when marketing want to run a campaign, the data is either not there, or incorrect)

The point of contradictions:

  1. they draw our attention to where things may be going well or badly, or are simply other than 'the norm' in relation to the utilisation of IT & associated change
  2. In thinking about change to come they suggest areas to be addressed
  3. In thinking about evaluating changes they suggest areas that need attention

Why Use it?

  1. Activity theory analyses relationships between practical activity & organisational contexts
  2. activity cannot be separated from (sociotechnical, cultural) environment/context in which it takes place
  3. there will be conflicts, inconsistencies dilemmas, innovations - things that did not (or do not) go as expected
  4. We can apply the idea of an activity system to the level that suits our purpose. E.g.:
    1. an organisation may be thought of as an activity system
    2. the activity of a team of IT consultants may be thought of as an activity system
  5. So, we can examine and explain patterns of activity within an activity system, thinking about:
    1. interactions
    2. interpretations
    3. contradictions
    4. changes
    5. what has happened
    6. what is happening
    7. what may happen

Task List

  1. Choose the setting & area of focus
  2. Identify possible activity systems of interest
  3. Define an activity system of interest (i.e. who are the subjects of interest – an activity system for each) & list components
    1. Subject – the individual or group whose viewpoint informs the analysis
    2. Object – the problem situation, or intention at which activity is directed
    3. Artifacts/tools – used by subject to achieve object (e.g. ICT, methods)
    4. Rules – regulations, norms, conventions (explicit & implicit) that constrain activity
    5. Community/actors – individuals or groups other than the subject who have same general object, but are distinct, and with whom subject interacts
    6. Div. of labour – the way tasks are divided up, and the way roles & hierarchies are structured
    7. Outcome – that which is ‘achieved
  4. Describe relationships between components & watch for contradictions
  5. Analyse the implications for info strategy (development, implementation, adoption & use of IT/info) in the activity system
  6. Repeat 2-4 for other activity systems (I.e. from viewpoint of other subjects)

Conditions required

Examples

  1. A football match - text
  2. the jkcc - images

Limitations Of method