Posts from: April, 2008

HCI Week 9 & 10: Situated Actions lecture and discussion.

Monday, April 28th, 2008


The topic covered in these last two classes was Situated Actions. In contrast to some of the other topics we have covered in the course, this is not really a theory or framework but more a highlighting of the importance of the specifics of a context to the interactions that happen there. An important concept that kind of sums this up is that actions are ‘situated’.

Practical Task

In groups, your task for this week is to analyze in detail an interaction between a person and a computer interface. Use Suchman’s framework to map out the actions and resources that are:

  • Actions of the users.
    • Not available to the machine.
    • Available to the machine.
  • Effects of the machine that are available to the user.
  • What the design rational for these might be.

Points to look for in the exercise:

  • What resources in the context other than the output of the machine do people use to help them accomplish their actions?
  • Do plans play a role in the interaction? What kind?

For next week’s discussion, prepare a presentation of your findings.


Week 9 lecture slides are available.


  • Chapter 6 ‘Situated Actions’ in Suchman, L.A., 1987. Plans and situated actions : the problem of human-machine communication, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

HCI Week 8: Activity Theory and ‘What is theory?’

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

What is theory Post-its.

This week’s lecture was about Activity Theory. This theory originates with the psychology of Vygotsky. Compared to the other theories we have covered in the course, Activity Theory is probably closest to Distributed Cognition, in that it takes systems of activity (what Distributed Cognition would call functional systems) as the unit of analysis. However, there are important differences in the theories. A particularly significant difference is that whereas Distributed Cognition makes no distinction between people and artifacts, activity theory does. In activity theory the ability of people to act independently to effect change is an important idea. Another difference is that activity theory has more of a focus on the historical development of an activity system and pays more attention to processes of change and development.

Critical Questions

  • Activity Theory has a lot of terminology and concepts. At the same time that this adds to the power of the theory, it may also make it more difficult to understand at first.

Practical Task

The practical task for this week was to think about what makes a good theory. In groups, students discussed the question and made a poster with suggestions for (1) what a theory is (2) what makes a good theory and (3) how the theories we have covered in the class compare in these respects. After the groups had discussed this amongst themselves for 15 minutes, we took a round where each group presented their poster to the rest of the class. We then combined the post-its, as shown in the picture above.

I have made a pdf poster based on the post-its that everyone put up on the board. I’ve taken the liberty of rearranging the post-its so related ideas from different groups are closer together. I’ve also color coded the post-its based on whether they talk about what a theory is, what makes a good theory, or about one of the theories we have covered in class.


Lecture slides are available

Oral Presentation Format

I also handed out a document explaining the format for the final oral presentation for the course. If you haven’t signed up for a time to give your presentation yet, you should email me or see me in class next week.


  • Susanne Bodker, 2005. A Human Activity Approach to User Interfaces. Human Computer Interaction, 1989, v4, pp. 171-195.
  • Nardi, B.A., 1995. Studying context: a comparison of activity theory, situated action models, and distributed cognition. In Context and consciousness: activity theory and human-computer interaction. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 69-102.

Web Resources

  • An extensive list of links around the topic of Activity Theory.
  • Wikipedia article on Scandinavian Activity theory, which has a bit more detail than the general article about the application of Activity Theory to HCI.