Recently I’ve had a chance to apply Activity-Centered Design working with a group of agile developers. Up came the question whether Activity-Centered Design isn’t another form of Big-Upfront-Design.
Big-Upfront-Design is a term that many agile software developers fear. It’s that thing where someone figures it all out, then throws a document, usually filled also with many drawings, over the wall and expects a group of programmers to write the code. The big-upfront-design we fear so much does not have any feedback loops and the creator assumes there is no need for feedback before the software has been coded. At least that’s more or less the mental image that is commonly associated with the term.
Activity-Centered Design is not that kind of practice.
First and foremost, Activity Theory has its roots in learning and child development. In its modern form it is called Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). How can something associated with learning, with child development, with culture and history be considered upfront design?
Activity Theory provides a theoretical framework to comprehend activities and actions. It can used to explain existing activities and actions but also to design a thing that helps a subject to perform those activities and actions in a supportive fashion. It can also be used to design and engineer a thing for completely new activities and actions.
When I use Activity Theory to design and engineer a new thing it really means that I’m using it to analyze and comprehend an existing activity system, through observation, or I’m using it against a hypothesis, to verify my model.
It is not so much to design something. It is much more to understand the problem before jumping ahead and start creating a solution. That’s why I call my book Smarter Software with Activity-Centered Design. My creation will be smarter, if I comprehend better what people want to do with it. Once I understand better the context people use my software in, I can create something that better suits their needs.
There is a reason why Apple products (iPod, iPhone, iPad) have that much success. Apple is a company that has had significant contributions from researchers in the field of interaction design knowledgeable about Activity Theory. Here is a quote from Donald Norman, who worked at Apple, to support that:
But while most of Apple’s designs seem aimed at that young, artsy slacker it features in its clever TV commercials, Apple’s approach isn’t about targeting hipsters, says Donald A. Norman, a professor at Northwestern University and author of The Design of Future Things. Rather, the company’s design genius lies in its dedication to making simple, elegant devices for specific activities, not demographic types, he says. Its early markets were learning and publishing; now they’re creativity and entertainment. “The proper way to design is not to target an individual type of customer. You want 100 million customers,” says Norman.