A practical understanding of Activity Theory

In this article, I share a practical understanding of Activity Theory. Many times when people hear the word "theory" their eyes glaze over, but this is not the boring stuff being delivered by an academic. Theory is applied in the world of design science. Activity Theory is a methodology for analyzing processes and influences, motivations and sources of conflict, and generally for solving problems within human-centered systems.

Understanding of Activity Theory as a framework of analysis

Activity Theory is a clarifying tool used as a means of investigation and positioning information so that it can be understood in context. It is associated with usage of the system in a long-term process. Then a user does an activity, he/she has a goal in mind. It is a framework for studying human practices. The activity itself is a unit of analysis. If somebody has a need and if there is a functionality for it, the solution is there. The users will react to activities based on Socio-Cultural experiences and interactions. Activity takes places when an Individual action is executed with a meaningful content. They are content in which they are executed. Activity has a major impact on a person, the system and the structures. As a realist, Activity in constant change and improvements. It is the nature of human to adjust always, but humans are also eager to find gaps in the system to experiment more. Their activities are based on new needs and improvements. So, if we are designing something it will be applied to various circumstances repeatedly which the designers wouldn’t have even imagined while designing it.

Every activity has Object and outcome and the results keep changing constantly. The real scenario, the object could be an activity and outcome could be the result. The outcome is a change position or a final product. Here the subject is the people doing the activity or a tool. Community involves the people involved in the activity and the rules. A close and intimate relationship interact directly. Then a system is implemented, the efficiency and commitment will be dropped due to the regulations. A goal is completed when an operation is completed or when a condition is met. That is when the motive is realized. When a goal is completed the motive is realized.

People have a different orientation for the action. Every user does the planning in mind before action is performed. Then planning takes place in consciousness. Not only plans but Actions also has justifications too. Activity is dynamic in nature and the people are influenced by other activities. Activity theory is highly used for solving problems within human-centered systems. The Structure of an Activity is very simple, but it is difficult to make future predictions in the activity process when Activity theory is considered because the activity theory gives emphasis on understanding the historical development of the human activity.

The Structure of an Activity

The above diagram is the structure of the Activity which is used in the upcoming examples mentioned in this document. The components of the Activity theory are Subject, Object, community, tools, rules and the division of labor. The motivation for an activity is processed between object and outcome. Activities are distinguished from each other by their objects. The relationship between the subject and an object is linked by the tools. The tools are highly related to the skills needed during the process between the subject and the object. The tools require experience. My understanding of the system for my examples of Activity theory is based on this structure in the diagram.

Levels of Activity

There are 3 levels operations such as:

  1. Activity

  2. Action level

  3. Operations level.

An activity is a long-term process. Sometimes a sequence of activities is required in other to reach the goal. That means, Actions consist of many operations. Participation in activities with different motives may cause issues. The operations are influenced by the conditions

Example 1

Subject: A User Experience Designer

Object: Designing a mobile application for a client which gives information to equip employees to spend less on medical and prescription drug expenses while promoting quality of health care.

Community: Stakeholders, Developers, Designers, Business Analyst, Content writer

Outcome: A delivered user friendly mobile application

Tools: Software, hardware Tools, stationaries for brain storming

Rules: Agile methodologies, Company policy, security policy, software restrictions

Division of labor: Developers, Designers, Business Analyst, Content writer, scrum master, product owner, project manager, higher level officials.

Example 2

Subject: Teaching how to use a computer

Object: Developing students to learn technical skills to use computer

Community: Student, teacher

Outcome: Knowledge, experience

Tools: Computer and it’s peripherals. Stationaries for taking notes

Rules: Obedience, attendance, patience, discipline

Division of labor: Teacher gives instructions and student follows instructions

Example 3

Subject: Uninstalling a game

Object: Deleting the game completely from the computer

Community: User/gamer

Outcome: Satisfaction, increasing hard disk space and memory

Tools: Computer, uninstall option in settings

Rules: Following steps, patience, prior experience or knowledge of steps

Division of labor: Programmer


1. KAPTELININ, V. (n.d.). The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed.Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved September 11, 2018, from https://www.interaction-design.org/.

2. Torkil Clemmensen, Victor Kaptelinin & Bonnie Nardi (2016): Making HCI theory work: an analysis of the use of activity theory in HCI research, Behaviour & Information Technology, DOI: 10.1080/0144929X.2016.1175507

3. Nardi, B. A. (n.d.). Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. Retrieved September 11, 2018.

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