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Activity Theory: Basic Concepts and Applications

Victor Kaptelinin
Department of Informatics
Umeå University
S-901 87 Umeå, Sweden

Bonnie A. Nardi
Apple Research Laboratories
Apple Computer, Inc
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014 USA


This tutorial introduces participants to Activity Theory, a conceptual approach that provides a broad framework for describing the structure, development, and context of computer-supported activities. The tutorial will consist of lectures, discussion and small group exercises. A Web community will be established so attendees will be able to continue to learn about and use activity theory.


Activity Theory, foundations of HCI, contextual studies

© 1997 Copyright on this material is held by the authors.


Much concern has been voiced recently about the lack of a unifying theoretical perspective in Human Computer Interaction. Fragmentation in the field undermines not only the conceptual integrity of HCI but also its impact on the practice of design, evaluation, and use of computer systems. This tutorial introduces participants to Activity Theory which provides a broad conceptual framework for describing the structure, development, and context of computer-supported activities.

Activity Theory was developed by the Russian psychologists Vygotsky, Rubinshtein, Leont'ev and others, (see [2,3]) with work beginning in the 1920's. There is a thriving Activity Theory tradition in HCI studies in Scandinavia (e.g., [1]) and increasing interest in Activity Theory and HCI in other European countries, the U.S., [4], Canada and Australia, as well as continuing work in Russia.

Participants will learn basic concepts and principles of Activity Theory and will acquire practical skills for applying these concepts to the analysis of problems of human-computer interaction. Any researcher, designer or engineer who wants to understand how computers are used in the context of real activity would find the material useful. Those interested in HCI theory in general would also benefit from the tutorial.

Learning Objectives

Our participants will learn:
  1. The five basic principles of Activity Theory (described in the next section);
  2. Where Activity Theory is situated with respect to other theories such as those of cognitive science, distributed cognition, situativity theory, as well as approaches such as task analysis and scenario-based design;
  3. How to apply Activity Theory to real world problems of design and evaluation;
  4. How to select an appropriate methodology for the problem to be studied.
A number of issues, such as cognitive artifacts and affordances, that are of interest to HCI researchers, will be addressed throughout the tutorial.

We intend for participants to continue to learn beyond the tutorial. They will have the option of becoming part of a Web-based community that we will establish with threaded discussions, updates of new research and publications, background material on Activity Theory, and so forth.

The Basic Principles of Activity Theory: An Overview

Activity Theory is a set of basic principles that constitute a general conceptual system, rather than a highly predictive theory. The basic principles of Activity Theory include the hierarchical structure of activity, object-orientedness, internalization/externalization, tool mediation, and development.

Hierarchical structure of activity

In Activity Theory the unit of analysis is an activity directed at an object which motivates activity, giving it a specific direction. Activities are composed of goal-directed actions that must be undertaken to fulfill the object. Actions are conscious, and different actions may be undertaken to meet the same goal. Actions are implemented through automatic operations. Operations do not have their own goals; rather they provide an adjustment of actions to current situations. Activity Theory holds that the constituents of activity are not fixed, but can dynamically change as conditions change.


The principle of "object-orientedness" (not to be confused with object-oriented programming) states that human beings live in a reality that is objective in a broad sense: the things that constitute this reality have not only the properties that are considered objective according to natural sciences but socially/culturally defined properties as well.


Activity Theory differentiates between internal and external activities. It emphasizes that internal activities cannot be understood if they are analyzed separately from external activities, because they transform into each other. Internalization is the transformation of external activities into internal ones. Internalization provides a means for people to try potential interactions with reality without performing actual manipulation with real objects (mental simulations, imaginings, considering alternative plans, etc.). Externalization transforms internal activities into external ones. Externalization is often necessary when an internalized action needs to be "repaired," or scaled. It is also important when a collaboration between several people requires their activities to be performed externally in order to be coordinated.


Activity Theory emphasizes that human activity is mediated by tools in a broad sense. Tools are created and transformed during the development of the activity itself and carry with them a particular culture - historical remains from their development. So, the use of tools is an accumulation and transmission of social knowledge. Tool use influences the nature of external behavior and also the mental functioning of individuals.


In Activity Theory development is not only an object of study, it is also a general research methodology. The basic research method in Activity Theory is not traditional laboratory experiments but the formative experiment which combines active participation with monitoring of the developmental changes of the study participants. Ethnographic methods that track the history and development of a practice have also become important in recent work.

Integration of the principles

These basic principles of Activity Theory should be considered as an integrated system, because they are associated with various aspects of the whole activity. A systematic application of any of these principles makes it eventually necessary to engage all the other ones.

Practical exercise: Capturing the context of HCI with the Activity Checklist

During the practical exercise participants will be introduced to the Activity Checklist based on the principles of Activity Theory. The Checklist is a conceptual tool for identifying the most important factors influencing the use of computer technologies in a particular setting. By applying the Checklist to a series of examples, participants will get a hands-on experience of using Activity Theory as a framework for design and interpretation of studies of human computer interaction. The exercise will be organized into five phases:
  1. In the first phase participants will be provided with some observational data which they will be asked to analyze, i.e., to indicate potential problems, formulate requests for further analysis, and provide some suggestions on how the problem can be solved.
  2. In the second phase the Activity Checklist will be introduced. The general structure of the Checklist corresponds to the four main perspectives on the use of the technology to be evaluated:
    1. focus on the structure of the user's activities -- the extent to which the technology facilitates and constrains attaining the user's goals and the impact of the technology on provoking or resolving conflicts between different goals;
    2. focus on the structure of environment -- integration of target technology with requirements, tools, resources, and social norms of the environment;
    3. focus on the structure and dynamics of interaction -- internal vs. external components of activity and support of their mutual transformations with the target technology;
    4. focus on development -- developmental transformation of the above components as a whole.
  3. In the third phase we will explain to participants how to use the Checklist. Two issues will be discussed:
    1. adjusting the Checklist to specific purposes of an analysis, and
    2. selecting an appropriate methodology for conducting empirical research.
  4. In the next phase another set of observational data will be provided. Participants will apply the Activity Checklist to the data and come up with interpretations, working individually or in small groups.
  5. The final phase of the exercise will be organized as a full group discussion.


1. Bødker, S. Through the interface: A human activity approach to user interface design. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

2. Kaptelinin, V., Kuutti, K., Bannon, L. Activity Theory: Basic Concepts and Applications. In Blumenthal et al. (Eds.) Human-Computer Interaction. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer, 1995.

3. Leont'ev, A. N. Activity, Consciousness, Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1978.

4. Nardi, B., Ed. Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1996.

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CHI 97 Electronic Publications: Tutorials