Activity Theory

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Activity Theory describes the theory that all human activities are driven by needs. These needs can be real or perceived. Activities can be undertaken by subjects (individuals and groups) or through objects. Tools are interfaces between subjects and objects. These carry on cultures and


Activity theory focuses on the interaction of human activity and consciousness within its relevant environmental context.[1] The basic unit of analysis in activity theory is human activity. Human activities are driven by certain needs where people wish to achieve certain purposes. It is obvious that activity cannot exist as an isolated entity. The very concept of activity implies that there is an agent who acts (an individual or collective subject). An activity is undertaken by a subject (individual or subgroup) using tools to achieve an object (objective) thus transforming objects into outcomes. Relations between elements of an activity are not directed, but mediated.
The relationship between subject and object of activity is mediated by a tool. A tool can be anything used in the transformation process, including both material tools and tools for thinking. Transforming the object into an outcome requires various tools (e.g., computers, software, methods, ideas, procedures, Internet, paper, pen etc.). The object is seen and manipulated not as such, but within the limitations set by the tools.[2] Artefacts are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carry with them a particular culture; a historical remnant of that development.
The relationship between subject and the community is mediated by rules. Rules cover both implicit and explicit norms, conventions and social relations within a community as related to the transformation process of the object into an outcome. Rules in our case consist of organizational practices and policies, working hours, working regulations, etc. The relationship between object and community is mediated by the division of labour: how the activity is distributed among the members of the community. That is, the role each individual in the community plays in the activity, the power each wields and the tasks each is held responsible for. Each of the mediating terms is historically formed and opens to further development. [3] The basic structure of an activity can be illustrated as in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Basic Structure of an Activity

Applications of Activity Theory to designing user-centric software

Interaction designer Andrew Otwell wrote:
“users” are individuals, with knowledge and practice habits gotten from membership in a community (or communities) of practice. “Activities” are object-centered and frequently social. Wikipedia quotes Nardi’s definition of AT: “all the mental functioning including remembering, deciding, classifying, generalising, abstracting and so forth, as a product of our social interactions with other people and of our use of tools” [4].
I wonder to what extent UCD’s and Activity Theory’s expectations of design inputs (deep examination of the formations of user goals, dissection of community and social network relationships) are really artifacts from a It’s now easier than ever to iterate working versions of a product quickly, to stay in perpetual beta, and to build quickly stuff people really love to use, in other words, to “Get Real.”. These days, it seems easier—and perhaps safer—to evolve certain products through many small changes as you learn about user behavior [5].

In [ ], __ writes:

Before actions are performed, they are planned in the consciousness with a model (orientation)

Conscious actions become operations over time (orientation phase disappears) New action is created with broader scope, incorporating new operation

Ex: Learning to drive manual (vs. automatic). Can also happen in reverse: When conditions change, operations can ‘unfold’. Applies to activities and actions, too: what is an activity for the software team might just be an action for the manager on the level of the firm.[6]
The further we go from left to right, the bigger the challenges.
Activity System - Engestrom+Webb.


  1. (Vygotsky 1978; Leont'ev 1981).
  2. (Kuutti 1996)
  3. (Kuutti 1996).
  4. - Activity Theory
  5. Ibid.
  6. Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction Simon Tan CS 260, Spring 2009.