Tuesday, August 09, 2005

(Tracing Genres through Organizations and Activity-Centered Design)

Originally posted: Tue, 09 Aug 2005 08:57:25

Discussions are heating up over a recent post of Don Norman's in which he urges us to move away from "human-centered design" and toward "activity-centered design." The latter term is based on "my own brand of 'Activity Theory,' heavily motivated by early Russian and Scandinavian research." (But not on the book by the same title, which happens to be in the same book series as mine.) Norman once again issues his call for designers to be dictators and to design around "activities." In his understanding, "activity is a coordinated, integrated set of tasks."

Dan Brown and Peter Merholtz have both been kind enough to mention my book as a counterexample to Norman's heavy-handed design dictatorship, and Dan in particular nails one of the problems with Norman's conception: it's static. As I wrote in a comment on Dan's blog, Norman doesn't seem to have taken into account the central way in which activity theory handles change, through contradictions. That's not terribly surprising, since design-as-dictator strategies tend to attempt to find the one best way to perform an activity (without reflecting much on the criteria for making that judgment), and then maximize stability by forcing users to learn and use the system as designed. This, I think, is why it's so vital to look at so-called "third generation" activity theory, which pushes contradictions to the forefront and -- more importantly -- attempts to describe networks of interpenetrating, developing activities and how they interact with each other.

Elsewhere, Andrew Otwell reacts to Norman's piece by asking, "I wonder to what extent UCD?s and Activity Theory?s expectations of design inputs (deep examination of the formations of user goals, dissection of community and social network relationships) are really artifacts from an era in computing that?s passed." The question is valid: much activity theory work on IT, until recently, drew deeply on the Scandinavian participatory design tradition from the early to mid 1980s. (I have a piece on the subject coming out in Technical Communication Quarterly this fall.) But the more recent "third generation" work has taken the knowledge economy/distributed capitalism more seriously and attempted to work out theoretical and methodological tools for addressing more rapid, less stable work formations. Search for "knotworking" on my site and you'll see what I mean.

As I say in my book, I think the key challenge will be to provide sustainable structures on which workers can build and formalize their own innovations. Since the book was published, we've seen an explosion of such tools. So when Dan praises 37 Signals, I agree -- and I see opportunities in applying "third-generation" AT to disparate activity networks using similar tools. >

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