Activity-Centred Design: Interaction Design Approaches

Activity-centred design is concerned with identifying the tasks users perform with a product. Designers may attempt to judge how users will carry out their activities with a product by using logic, reasoning or rational thinking; however, in the real-world people often employ strategies and methods to problems that lack any apparent logic, reasoning or rationality. In order to provide users with the tools, functions, features and any other design element necessary to complete their tasks, designers place strong emphasis on studying the way users actually approach the problems posed in a particular domain.

Unlike user-centred design, this approach is based on the assumption that the activities users are to perform with a product determine the overall user experience. Therefore, activity-centred design encourages the designer to generate products according to the users’ tasks and how they will go about satisfying their aims and objectives, rather than attempting to accommodate the user. In essence, activity-centred design assumes the user will learn to adapt if the product is designed according to the intended activities and tasks. Whilst the underlying philosophy differs from user-centred design, an activity-centred design approach is no less methodical and improvements are made, following consultations, interviews and other feedback methods, during an iterative process.

Activity-Centred Design: The Process

Every activity can be seen as a series of tasks, or sub-tasks, which are comprised of one action or more, and every one of these actions has one or more operations. The process of deconstructing a task into its component, tasks, actions, and operations to understand how a user tackles a problem is grounded in Activity Theory, which is a descriptive meta-theory that attempts to explain human behaviour in terms of an individual’s environment and the social reality they operate within.

By reducing the activities a user engages in with a product to the component tasks and investigating the actions and methods they would choose, the designer is better able to understand exactly how the user approaches each stage involved in task execution. Therefore, problematic elements can be identified and necessary features, functions etc. can be included to ensure the user is equipped with all of the tools they require to carry out every sub-stage of their task.

For example, a design team may be in charge of developing a set of remote controls for a DVD player; they might then break the activity of playing a DVD into the following tasks, actions and operations on the basis of information from a sample of users, thusly:

Activity: Play a DVD

Tasks: Turn the player on, find the episode you want to watch, and select the appropriate item on the screen.

Actions: (Turn the player on) start the DVD player, search for the available list of episodes.

Operations: (Search for episode listings) press the east-facing directional button to move through the options arranged horizontally on the home screen, press select on the appropriate item, use the south-facing button to move through the episodes arranged vertically, and press select to choose the intended item.

At all the various stages, the design team will identify ways to simplify each of the component operations so the user is able to move through the sub-tasks as quickly, seamlessly, effectively and efficiently as possible.

Activity-Centred Design: Pros and Cons

There are a number of benefits associated with investigating the activities involved during a particular user experience, rather than the intended users; some of the pros and cons are as follows (pros +ve) :

  • When a product allows the user to carry out a number of complex activities, it is important to investigate exactly how the user might tackle such problems in their natural environment. Focusing on the component stages of such activities and asking a sample of users what they might expect, want or need at each of these stages crystallises exactly what is necessary and what you might provide in your product.
  • Actions can be made more efficient. For example, users may have developed methods of interacting with a system to complete an action with multiple clicks; with activity-centred design the new system could provide the user with a simple, one-click method, which allows them to be more efficient.
  • The flow from task to task can be improved. Users rarely use a product to carry out one action in isolation; instead they are constantly shifting from one task to another. An activity-centred design approach can help the designer establish which tasks are often performed consecutively and identify means of easing the transition from task to task.
  • Does not offer a global approach to user experience. By which we mean, focussing on specific activities diverts attention away from the overall user experience. A product may provide the user with a quick and efficient way to achieve a number of their goals, but this approach does not guarantee a pleasurable, effective or consistent experience. Therefore, a solely activity-centred design approach is not recommended for large-scale projects with many different factors contributing to the usability of the product and the user experience.
  • By focussing on the user’s activities you may miss useful insights. For example, this approach tends to assume users are unskilled or lack experience, with the aim of simplifying the design. However, many users are skilled and experienced, and they may have developed effective strategies with alternative designs.

In Summary

Activity-centred design is a popular approach to interaction design; rivalling the dominance of user-centred design. This approach is based on the assumption that design should focus on the user’s tasks and try to make them as simple as possible. In contrast to user-centred design, activity-centred design focuses on specific tasks, as opposed to the overall user experience. There are clear benefits to using this approach, such as simplifying tasks and easing the passage from one to the other, but for a truly global view of the user experience, a solely activity-centred design approach is not recommended.


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