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Activity theory

11 January 1998

Activity theory and Cognitive Sciences


By Henrry Rodriguez, henrry@nada.kth.se

Introduction

In this paper I will compare two approaches: Activity theory and Cognitive science in the field of
Human computer Interaction. I will not give a very detailed description of the two approaches. I do
this because this paper is the term paper of the course 'Activity theory in HCI' given in Nov. 13 and
Nov. 20 by Victor Kaptellinin.

If we want to understand what a person does, we first have to know in which context that person is.
Now that I say that comes to my mind a technic that is very often used by film makers, they start the
film with a scene that does not have any meaning for the public, it just fills them of question and
curiosity. What film makers are doing is just capturing the public's attention. The development the
film then explaining the global context, in which the first action was done. This is a very simple
example to prove how important it is to understand the context that any action takes place. If we can
understand the context that means that we could have an idea of that which actions can be performed
and in which sequence. In the field of HCI to know this context is very important and to get a
description of that context is always hard to find because attempting to have a good description of
that context we could include a lot of information that is not relevant for the design of an interface
also we could very easily no recognize a situation that could be very important and that could change
the context if we do not give to this situation the value that it can have. The combination of
psychology, ergonomics, and computer technology has generated an area of interdisciplinary
knowledge known as 'Human-Computer Interaction' (HCI). There are guidelines to assist designers,
who no longer have to rely on guesswork or personal experience and expertise to decide between
possibilities.

Activity Theory

Activity theory originated in the former Soviet union as part of the cultural-historical school of
psychology founded by Vygotskij, Leontjev and Lurija. The theory is a philosophical framework for
studying different forms of human praxis as developmental processes, with both the individual and
the social level interlinked.

In activity theory the unit of analysis is an activity that is being composed of subject, object, actions,
and operation. A subject is a person or a group engaged in an activity. An object is help by the
subject and motivates activity. 'Behind the object there always stands a need or a desire, to which [the
activity] always answer.'

Activity theory has five principles:

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1. Object-orientedness
Actions are goal_directed processes that must be undertaken to fulfil the object. They are
conscious because one hold a goal in mind and different actions may be undertaken to meet
the same goal. Every activity is directed toward something that objectively exists in the world,
which is an Object. The notion of object is not limited in Activity theory to the physical,
chemical, and biological properties of entities. Socially and culturally determined properties
are also objective properties that can be studied with objective methods. Objects can be
transformed in the course of an activity and do not change on a moment_by_moment basis.
There is some stability over time, and change in objects are not trivial: they can change the
nature of an activity. The human activity is guided by anticipation. This anticipation is a
motive of the activity, the goal of the action and the oriented basis of the operation,
respectively. The anticipation of futures events is the fundamental principle of anticipatory
reflection as developed by Anokhin. The classical example of anticipatory reflection is
Anokhin's rethinking of Pavlov's discovery of the conditioned reflex:When a dog salivates in
response to the ringing of a bell, it is not because saliva is needed for digest the bell but
because the dog anticipates food to appear in the future which has to be digested. When the
activity is performed there is a feedback mechanism which compares the result of the activity
with the prediction and any incongruence (I.e a breakdown) gives rise to a learning situation (I.
e. the experience of the person is expanded)

2. Hierarchical structure of activity


Actions are similar to what are often referred to in HCI literature as task . According to
Leotijev, interaction between human begins and the world is organized into functionally
subordinated hierarchical levels. According to Leontijev there are three levels: activities,
actions, and operation. Each action performed by a human being has not only intentional
aspects but also operational aspects and the most fundamanetal level of operation is an
adaptation to the physical aspects of the user interface. Operations becomes routinized and
unconscious with practice and they depend on the conditions under which the action is being
carried out. That means that operation are orientate in the world by a non-conscious orienting
basis of the operation. This orientation basis is established through experience with the
concrete material conditions for the operation, and is a system of expectation about the
execution of each operation controlling the operation, in the process of the activity. Activity
theory holds that the constituents of Activity theory are not fixed but can dynamically change
as conditions changes. All levels can move up and down. An operation can became an action
when 'conditions impede an action's execution through previously formed operations'. For
Activity theory object remain fixed, but goals, actions, and operations change as conditions
change so we see a flexibility aspect in Activity theory.

3. Internalization/Externalization
B.F. Lomov points that any activity has an internal and external side and they are related
without any gap to each another. The division of activity in Internalization/Externalization is
really artificial. Any external activity is supported by processes that are originated inside the
subject and internal process appears in one way or another in the external world. The most
important for Activity theory should be not make this artificial division and the find out how
they are related to each other but while studying the 'external side' of the activity discover the
'internal side.' According to Vygotskij internalization is social by its very nature. The range of

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actions done by a person in cooperation with others comprises the so called 'zone of proximal
development.' Externalization is the opposite of internalization. Mental process manifest
themselves in external actions performed by a person, so they can be verified and corrected, if
necessary. Activity theory emphasizes that it is not just mental representation that gets placed
on someone's head; it is holistic activity, including motor activity and the use of artifact.

4. Mediation
Human activity is mediated by a number of tools, both external and internal. The mediation is
done by artifacts which broadly define and include instruments, signs, language, and
machines, mediate activity and are created by people to control their own behavior. Artifacts
carry with them a particular culture and history and are persistent structures that stretch across
activities through time and space.

5. Development
Activity theory requires that human interaction with reality should be analysed in the context
of development. The activity itself is the context. Context is constituted through the enactment
of an activity involving people and artifacts. Context is both internal to people and at the same
time external. The crucial point is that in Activity theory external and internal are fused,
unified.

Cognitive Science

What is Cognitive Science?

Cognitive Science is a rapidly expanding field of study aimed at understanding the mental processes
that underlie cognitive abilities. The questions asked by Cognitive Science are not new. Philosophers,
Psychologists, Linguists, Neuroscientists and Computer Scientists have all approached the basic
questions posed by the nature of mental processes in their own ways as part of the broader
endeavours of their respective fields. Cognitive Science is distinguished from these traditional
disciplines by its highly interdisciplinary approach. Its defining technique is to bring expertise gained
from the related disciplines to bear on a set of common questions: What are the basic components of
cognitive processes? Are they subsumed by a common mental mechanism? What is the relationship
between the physical apparatus and cognition? To answer these questions Cognitive Scientists engage
in empirical studies aimed at assessing their formal and computational models of various aspects of
cognition. The sorts of areas investigated include the information-acquisition and information-
processing mechanisms underlying cognitive abilities like perception, recognition, information
storage and information retrieval, language acquisition, comprehension and production, concept
acquisition, problem solving, and reasoning.

Since the Seventeenth Century, the development of a unified science of the mind has been frustrated
by the fact that questions about perception, thought, memory, imagination, language comprehension
and learning, and other mental phenomena fall under the purview of several distinct sciences, each
with its own methodology, conception of explanation, and preferred set of explanatory models. Until
recently, most psychologists, philosophers, computer scientists, linguists, and neurobiologists have
been content to pursue these questions in relative isolation, awaiting, it seems, the arrival of some
modern-day Newton of the mind. In the last two decades, however, the gradual emergence in each of

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these disciplines of some version of the view that mental phenomena can be fruitfully understood as
operations on symbolic representations and that the mind is thus, in some sense or other, an
information processor, has made possible a truly interdisciplinary approach, cognitive science, that
holds the promise of being the long sought unified science of the mind.

Cognitive science is not really new, the phenomenon of thought and language are points of interest
for philosopher and scientist since a very long time ago. Cognitive sciences need to be distinguished
from cognitive psychology, which is the branch of traditional psychology dealing with cognition.
Although cognitive psychology constitutes a substantial part of what is seen as Cognitive sciences, it
follows specific methodological principles that limit its scope.

In the field of Cognitive sciences there are some approaches to modelling the interaction between a
user and the device. The GOMS (Goal, Operators, Methods and Selection and the production system
model) are know as 'process' models because attempt to supply a simple model of the mental
processes involved in using an interface, including remembering items, starting a new subgoal, etc.
They yield predictions which are less quantitative in nature, based perhaps on how many items must
be simultaneously retained in working memory or on other measures. Both models characterize the
knowledge necessary to performance routine tasks like text editing.

The GOMS Model

The GOMS model represents a user' s knowledge of how to carry out routine skills in terms of goals,
operations, methods, and selection rules. GOMS describes the operation of the interface in terms of a
'state space.' The user«s goal is to achieve a particular state; each available operator takes the user to
the same state or a new state, in which different operators will be available.

Goals represent a user's intention to perform a task, a subtask, or a single cognitive or a physical
operation. Goals are organized into structures of interrelated goals that sequence cognitive operations
and user actions.

Operations characterize elementary physical actions (e.g., pressing a function key or typing a string
of characters), and cognitive operations not analysed by the theory (e.g., perceptual operations,
retrieving an item from memory, or reading a parameter and storing it in working memory).

A user's knowledge is organized into methods which are subroutines. Methods generate sequences of
operations that accomplish specific goals or subgoals. The goal structure of a method characterizes its
internal organization and control structure.

Selection rules specify the conditions under which it is appropriate to execute a method to effectively
accomplish a specific goal in a given context. They are compiled pieces of problem solving
knowledge. They function by asserting the goal to execute a given method in the appropriate context.

Content and Structure of a User' s Knowledge The GOMS model assumes that execution of a task
involves decomposition of the task into a series of subtasks. A skilled user has effective methods for
each type of subtask. Accomplishing a task involves executing the series of specialized methods that

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perform each subtask. There are several kinds of methods. High-level methods depose the initial task
into a sequence of subtasks. Immediate-level methods describe the sequence of functions necessary to
complete a subtask. Low-level methods generate the actual sequence of user actions necessary to
perform a function.

A user's knowledge is a mixture of task-specific information, the high-level methods, and system-
specific knowledge, the low-level methods. The knowledge captured in the GOMS representation
describes both general knowledge of how the task is to be decomposed as well as specific
information on how to execute functions required to complete the task on a given system.

Cognitive Complexity Theory

Kieras and Polson (1985) propose that the knowledge represented in a GOMS model be formalized as
a production system. Selection of production systems as a vehicle for formalizing this knowledge was
theoretically motivated. Newell and Simon (1972) argue that the architecture of the human
information processing system can be characterized as a production system. Since then, production
system models have been developed for various cognitive processes (problem solving: Simon, 1975;
Karat, 1983; text comprehension, Kieras, 1982; cognitive skills: Anderson, 1982).

An Overview of Production System Models

A production system represents the knowledge necessary to perform a task as a collection of rules. A
rule is a condition-action pair of the form
IF (condition) THEN (action)
where the condition and action are both complex. The condition represents a pattern of information in
working memory that specifies when a physical action or cognitive operation represented in the
action should be executed. The condition includes a description of an explicit pattern of goals and
subgoals, the state of the environment, (e.g., prompts and other information on a CRT display), and
other needed information in working memory.

Production Rules and the GOMS Model

A production system model is derived by first performing a GOMS analyses and then writing a
program implementing the methods and control structures described in the GOMS model. Although
GOMS models are better structural and qualitative description of the knowledge necessary to perform
tasks, expressing the knowledge and processes in the production system formalism permits the
derivation of well motivated, quantitative predictions for training time, transfer, and execution time
for various tasks.

Kieras, Bovair and Polson among others have successfully tested assumptions underlying these
predictions. These authors have shown that the amount of time required to learn a task is a linear
function of the number of new rules that must be acquired in order to successfully execute the task
and that execution time is the sum of the execution times for the rules that fire in order to complete
the task. They have shown that transfer of training can be characterized in the terms of shared rules.

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Transfer of user skill

In a following section, research on transfer of user skills in human-computer interaction will be


reviewed. This research shows that it is possible to give a very precise theoretical characterization to
large transfer effects, reductions in training time on the order of three or four to one. These results
strongly support the hypothesis that large transfer effects are due to explicit relationships between
different tasks performed on the same system or related tasks performed on different systems.
Existing models of the acquisition and transfer of cognitive skills enable us to provide precise
theoretical descriptions of these transfer processes. These same models can in turn be used to design
consistent user interfaces for a wide range of tasks and systems that will promote similar large
reductions in training time and saving in training costs.

Discussion

People who work with computers extensively build up a repertoire of efficient, smooth, learned
behaviours for carrying out theirs routine communicative activities. Yet the interaction is intensely
cognitive. The skills are wielded within a problem-solving context, and the skills themselves involve
the processing of symbolic information, there is always required the interpretation of instructions, the
formulation of sequences of command, and the communication of these commands to the computer.

Susane B¾ker points out that the conditions that trigger a certain operation from the repertoire of
operation are what we need to investigate in user interface design.

Terry Winograd points out that ' many difficult issued are raised by the attempt to relate programs to
theory and to cognitive mechanism. Within the Cognitive sciences community, there is much debate
about just what role computers programs have in developing and testing theories'. He says that
Cognitive sciences will have important limitations in its scope and in its power to explain what we
are and what we do.

Maturana in 1970 says that 'Learning is not a process of accumulation of representation of the
environment; it is a continuous processor transformation of behavior through continuous change in
the capacity of the nervous system to synthesize it. Recall does not depend on the indefinite retention
of a structural invariant that represents an entity (an idea, image, or symbol), but on the functional
ability of the system to create, when certain recurrent conditions are given, a behavior that satisfies
the recurrent conditions or that the observer would class as a reenacting of a previous one.'

Winograd in his book gives a very simple explanation about that it is impossible to establish a
context_independet basis for circumscribing the literal use of a term even as seemingly simple as
'water' through this example
A: Is there any water in the refrigerator?
B: Yes.
a: Where? I don't see it.
B: In the cells of the eggplant.

As we can see in the both approaches ( Activity theory, GOMS and CTA) try to give a framework for

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the design of interfaces in the field of HCI. Now I will try to explain some of the limitation for them.

For error-free behavior, a GOMS model provides a complete dynamic description of behavior,
measured at the level of goal, method, and operators. Given a specific task, this description can be
instantiated into a sequence of operators. By associating times with each operator, such a model will
make total time predictions. If these time are given as distribution, it will make statistical predictions.
But, without augmentation, the model is not appropriate if errors occur Yet errors exist in routine
cognitive skilled behavior. Indeed, errors' rates may not even be small, in the sense of having
negligible frequency, taking negligible time, or having negligible consequences. For skilled behavior
the detection and correction of errors is mostly routine. It cannot be entire routine, since the
occurrence of rare types of errors for which the user is unprepared is always possible. But in the
main, errors are quickly detected and result in additional time to correct the error. The final effect of
the behavior remains relatively error-free, and the behavior can be characterized solely by the time to
completion. Thus, errors can be converted to variance in operators time, so that GOMS theory can be
applied to actual behavior at the price of degraded accuracy. For a general treatment of errors and
interruptions of the users, the hierarchical control structure of a GOMS model is inadequate; a more
general control structure is required. The use of stack discipline GOMS model instead of a more
general control structure, such as production system (Newell Simon, 1972), should be taken as an
approximation especially appropriate for skilled cognitive behavior and preferred here because of its
greater simplicity. The very limited degree to which this analysis involves any psychological process
model can be assessed from the amount of reasoning behind it. The analysis is based on two basic
principles of psychology. Firstly, that people act so as to attain their goals through rational action
given the structure of the task, and secondly, that problem solving activity can be described in terms
of a set of knowledge states; operators for changing states; and control knowledge for applying
knowledge. Since 'Operators are elementary . . . Elementary processing acts, whose execution is
necessary to change any aspects of the user's memory . . .' Card, 1978, p 58) the model has the
potential for processing operations.

On the other hand GOMS uses only the knowledge in the design, and produces absolute estimates of
performance time - 'it will take 3.45 second for a skilled user to perform this task using this system'

CTA is first and foremost a means of making relationships explicit between approximate knowledge
representations and cognitive limitations on their mental processing, The characteristic and limitation
are specified in terms of the properties of mental codes; restricted capabilities for coordinating and
controlling processes which handle those codes: and more specific limitations such as recency and
description effects in memory retrieval. The approach essentially provides a language in which such
constraints can be specified. The language refers to processes and coded mental representations
which can be described in terms of theirs attributes. In its present form, only a limited range of
attributes and constraint are actually utilised. They can, however, be added to as further analyses of
user performance and provide additional empirical justification for extending that range.

In my point of view I think that Activity theory has a lot still do give to HCI, I think that the most
important here is that the elementary unit of study in Activity theory is the action and when we are
interacting with a computer there are a lots of actions so a framework in which action is the main
object of study as in Activity theory will give a lot to make easy the study of this field. One aspect
that is very important is that Activity theory is not a rigid but flexible, it gives the possibility to go

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from level to other in both directions. When we are working with different users, and as far as I know
there is no system done to be run for one specific person, we have to be very careful because it is not
easy to put all these users into a frame and start to develop, that is why it is very important to have a
flexible approach.

Nardi points out that the use of Activity theory framework implies

1. A research time frame long enough to understand users' objects


2. Attention to broad patterns of activity
3. The use of a varied set of data collected techniques
4. A commitment to understanding things from users' points of view.
5.

If we use a model under the frame of Activity theory then we will have a model that:

● is simple, the actions described are high level abstractions so that the system can be described
in terms of a small number of elements;
● is dynamic, a designer can play through high level action sequences and observe its behavior;
● is non-deterministic, typically a model will permit a large number of possible action sequences
and it is up to the modeller to explore this space of operator choice when evaluating a design.

In my opinion nowadays the possibility that AT gives to the field of HCI is still on process and that
only with practice we will find out if working in this framework this filed will find a common and
general way in its research. The answer to this will only be given within the time and with the use of
this framework. It is one chance and a very wide set of possibilities and I do not see any reason why
we should no try to start new ways in research, in fact that is what keeps science going on.

References

Maturana Humberto R., Biology of cognition (1970), p 45

Winograd Terry,.Understanding Computers and Cognition, 1987

Card Stuart K, The psychology of human-computer interaction,1983

Anderson John R. Cognitive psychology and its implications (4th edition) 1995.

Nardi Bonnie A. Context and consciousness,1996.

Guindon Raymonde. Cognitive Science and its implication for Human-Computer Interaction.
1988.
Van der Veer, Gerrit, Working with computers:theory versus outcome.1980.

Hughes J. Et al. (Eds) Proceedings of the fifth European conference on Computer Supported
Collaborative Work, 'Plans as situated Action:An Activity theory approach to workflow system'
Bardram Jakob, p 17-32, 1997.

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Susane B¾ker, Through the interface, 'human Activity and Human-Computer Interaction', p 49-51.
1991

Shadrikov V.D. Activity psychology and capacity of the man, 1996 (˜àäðèêîâ ‚.„. •ñèõîëîãèß
äåßòåëüíîñòè è ñïîñîáíîñòè ÷åëàâåêà. 1996.)

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