Activity-Centered Design

Is the future of design activity-centered? Quite some time back I argued that Information Architecture was the wrong frame in which to approach design. My post got a lot of push-back from the established IA crowd, who claimed that I was either wrong or claimed that my view was just rehashing existing debate. I probably […]

Is the future of design activity-centered?

Quite some time back I argued that Information Architecture was the wrong frame in which to approach design. My post got a lot of push-back from the established IA crowd, who claimed that I was either wrong or claimed that my view was just rehashing existing debate. I probably deserved this push-back because I really had no idea what arena I was entering or what sacred cows I was actually attempting to kill. After talking with many folks afterward, it was clear to me that this debate has been around for a looooong time. Apparently the forces of interaction design have been facing off against the forces of information architecture in an epic battle for quite some time. I was flying a flag I didn’t know I was flying.

Thankfully, I didn’t burn too many bridges. I attended my first IA Summit this past April and found it quite enjoyable…in fact everyone I talked to had a strong opinion about it no matter what side they come down on.

Anyway, the conversations I’ve had since seem to prove one thing right: that the issue of how to frame design is an important one, no matter what you believe. In a piece written a few months after mine, Peter Morville agrees that framing is important, and actually seems to agree that IA isn’t always the right frame.

Morville includes a brilliant quote from George Lakoff, the Berkeley professor well-known for his ideas on framing:

“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions…Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.”

This is the gist of framing, and it is applicable to every part of life. Lakoff recently wrote a piece about how Barack Obama could reframe his campaign messages concerning John McCain. Lakoff’s underlying point is that the way we talk about things affects the way we think about them, and ultimately the way we do them.

Lately I’ve been arguing that the activity is a good frame for design. I started fleshing this out in my book, but admittedly it wasn’t as deep as I wanted to go. I believe that thinking about design from an activity-centric viewpoint is the most efficient way to get where you need to go…which is to create a piece of software that is valuable to people.

This, like my argument about IA being the wrong frame, is not a new idea. In fact, activity theory has roots going back quite far, and lots of HCI publications are putting forth articles on activity-centered design. But it’s still academic, as far as I can tell. In 2005, Don Norman published Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful in ACM Interactions magazine, which turns out to be as much a screed against human-centered-design as it is a positive piece about activity-centered design.

Norman says:

“Many of the systems that have passed through HCD design phases and usability reviews are superb at the level of the static, individual display, but fail to support the sequential requirements of the underlying tasks and activities. The HCD methods tend to miss this aspect of behavior: Activity-centered methods focus upon it.”

Norman makes the case for activity-centered design by looking at everyday objects and suggesting that few in-depth studies of users helped create what they are…instead they evolved over time as people used them. Read any of the works of Henry Petroski to get an insight into the evolution of designs in this way…he writes a lot about how tools like forks and knives evolved over time and use.

Larry Constantine also wrote about activity-centered design in Designing Web Applications for Use. Constantine echoes Norman’s argument by also explaining further how user-centered design can be harmful.

“Focusing on activity and use is not a retreat to the bad old days of technology-centered, inside-out design in which developers arrogantly assumed they knew what was best and threw it at users. It is just an easy way to avoid the pitfalls of human-centered design without giving up its advantages. In the final analysis, understanding your users as people is far less important than understanding them as participants in activities.”

I agree with both Norman and Constantine, but I’m not convinced by them alone. I think we need more evidence that activity-centered design is indeed a good frame. In writing the book and pushing further on the matter in recent talks and discussions, I’m more convinced than ever that this is an avenue worth pursuing. To that end, I’ve been showing the following list when I give presentations, a list of sites and the activities they support.

  • Amazon: shopping
  • Dogster: taking care of dogs
  • Ravelry: knitting & crocheting
  • PatientsLikeMe: treating disease
  • Upcoming: managing events
  • YouTube: sharing videos
  • Remember The Milk: keeping to-do lists
  • Del.icio.us: bookmarking
  • eBay: auctioning
  • Netflix: watching movies
  • Last.fm: listening to music
  • Burdastyle: sewing
  • Bigtent: group management
  • Flickr: sharing photos

This list is a small one, but it shows how most popular web applications can easily be described in terms of the primary activity they support. I’m sure if you go down through your favorite sites you’ll find it very easy to do the same exercise.

More interestingly is how you can map almost every single feature in these applications to the primary activity. In How Social is Amazon? I pointed out how most of Amazon’s features are like this: each one directly supports the activity of shopping (made up of the actions of choosing an item and purchasing it) A simple rule of thumb: if it doesn’t support the primary activity, it’s not a good feature!

So…to summarize.

  1. Framing is important, as it changes the way we think about design and ultimately how we actually do design.
  2. Activity-centered design is about framing design in terms of human activity, unlike user-centered design which frames design in terms of the specific people who will use it or information architecture which frames design in terms of information.
  3. It’s easy to show how much of the software we use daily can be recast in terms of supporting a primary activity, which suggests that this is a valuable frame for the design process.

So there’s a start on the subject…I would love to start a dialog about what you’re currently finding useful in your design practices…what’s working/not working for you?

Published: September 25th, 2008

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