Antonio Rizzo


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Antonio Rizzo is Professor at the Communication Science Department, University of Siena. Previously, Antonio has been the Director of the Academy of Digital Arts and Science - ArsNova - in Siena and Chair of the European Association of Cognitive Ergonomics. He has also been Head of the Human Factors Division of the Italian Railways.

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Alessandrini, Andrea, Rizzo, Antonio, Rubegni, Elisa (2009): Drama prototyping for the design of urban interactive systems for children. In: Proceedings of ACM IDC09 Interaction Design and Children , 2009, . pp. 198-201.

Rizzo, Antonio, Rubegni, Elisa, Gronvall, Erik, Caporali, Maurizio, Alessandrini, Andrea (2009): The net in the Park. In Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 22 (1) pp. 51-59.

Bertelsen, Olav W., Gronvall, Erik, Rizzo, Antonio (2008): Mockup\'ing as a creative dialog with and through material. In: Abstract in the proceedings of ISCAR 2008 September 9-13, 2008, San Diego, USA.

Rubegni, Elisa, Brunk, Jevon, Caporali, Maurizio, Gronvall, Erik, Alessandrini, Andrea, Rizzo, Antonio (2008): Wi-Wave: Urban Furniture for Browsing Internet Contents in Public Spaces. In: Abascal, J., Fajardo, I., Oakley, I. (eds.) 15th European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics the Ergonomics of Cool interaction September 16-19, 2008, Funchal, Portugal.

Rizzo, Antonio (2006): The origin and design of intentional affordances. In: Proceedings of DIS06: Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, & Techniques , 2006, . pp. 239-240.

Rubegni, Elisa, Caporali, Maurizio, Rizzo, Antonio, Gronvall, Erik (2004): Designing the user experience in exhibition spaces. In: Proceedings of the 12th European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics September 12-15, 2004, York, UK.

Marti, P., Rizzo, Antonio (2003): Levels of design: from usability to experience. In: Stephanidis, Constantine (eds.) Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction June 22-27, 2003, Crete, Greece. pp. 449-453.

Rizzo, Antonio, Ghahremani, K., Pryor, L., Gardner, S. (2003): Immersive HMD-Delivered 360 Degree Panoramic Video Environments: Research on Creating Usef. In: Stephanidis, Constantine (eds.) Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction June 22-27, 2003, Crete, Greece. pp. 1233-1237.

Fusai, C., Saudelli, Berthe, Marti, Patrizia, Decortis, Francoise, Rizzo, Antonio (2003): Media composition and narrative performance at school. In J. Comp. Assisted Learning, 19 (2) pp. 177-185.

Decortis, Francoise, Rizzo, Antonio, Saudelli, Berthe (2003): Mediating effects of active and distributed instruments on narrative activities. In Interacting with Computers, 15 (6) pp. 801-830.

Decortis, Francoise, Rizzo, Antonio (2002): New Active Tools for Supporting Narrative Structures. In Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 6 (5) pp. 416-429.

Rizzo, Antonio, Neumann, U., Pintaric, T., Norden, M. (2001): Issues for Application Development Using Immersive HMD 360 Degree Panoramic Video Environm. In: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction , 2001, . pp. 792-796.

Benelli, Giuliano, Caporali, Maurizio, Rizzo, Antonio, Rubegni, Elisa (2001): Design concepts for learning spatial relationships. In: IEEE ACM 19th International Conference on Computer Documentation , 2001, . pp. 22-30.

Marti, P., Rizzo, Antonio, Bagnara, Sebastiano, Lomagistro, P., Tanzini, L. (1997): From System Evaluation to Service Redesign: A Case Study. In: Smith, Michael J., Salvendy, Gavriel, Koubek, Richard J. (eds.) HCI International 1997 - Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction - Volume 2 August 24-29, 1997, San Francisco, California, USA. pp. 779-782.

Rizzo, Antonio, Mariani, M., Zenie, A., Bagnara, Sebastiano (1997): Designing the Information Cooperative for Harmonizing, Coordinating, and Promoting Earth O. In: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction , 1997, . pp. 741-744.

Rizzo, Antonio, Marchigiani, Enrica, Andreadis, Alessandro (1997): The AVANTI Project: Prototyping and Evaluation with a Cognitive Walkthrough Based on the N. In: Proceedings of DIS97: Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, & Techniques , 1997, . pp. 305-309.

Rizzo, Antonio, Parlangeli, O., Marchigiani, E., Bagnara, Sebastiano (1996): The Management of Human Errors in User-Centered Design. In ACM SIGCHI Bulletin, 28 (3) pp. 114-119.

Rizzo, Antonio, Parlangeli, O., Cambiganu, C., Bagnara, Sebastiano (1993): Control of Complex System by Situated Knowledge: The Role of Implicit Learning. In: Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction , 1993, . pp. 855-860.

Bagnara, Sebastiano, Rizzo, Antonio (1989): A Methodology for the Analysis of Error Processes in Human-Computer Interaction. In: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction , 1989, . pp. 605-612.

Rizzo, Antonio, Bagnara, Sebastiano, Visciola, Michele (1987): Human Error Detection Processes. In International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, 27 (5) pp. 555-570.

Bagnara, Sebastiano, Rizzo, Antonio, Stablum, Franca, Visciola, Michele (1987): "Generics" in Human Decision Making. In: Bullinger, Hans-Jorg, Shackel, Brian (eds.) INTERACT 87 - 2nd IFIP International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction September 1-4, 1987, Stuttgart, Germany. pp. 361-365.

Rizzo, Antonio

16.10 Commentary by Antonio Rizzo

16.10.1 On Mediation and Play

The socio-cultural Russian approach to human psychology has been the first tradition to deserve special attention and a specific role for tools in human cognition. Contrary to activity theory, the so far dominant approach to cognition, the representational theory of mind, assumes that tools have no inherent meaning or intrinsic role in human cognition. In fact, all computational models of the human mind share the core assumption that the use of a tool (e.g., a hammer) requires the extraction of sensory information about object properties (heavy, rigid, etc.), which can then be translated directly or indirectly into appropriate motor outputs (grasping, hammering, etc.). Already back in 1890, William James pointed out the paradox of this position, i.e. that to perceive properties of objects we need to know in advance what is the object for:

All ways of conceiving a concrete fact, if they are true ways at all, are equally true ways. There is no property ABSOLUTELY essential to any one thing.  The same property, which figures at the essence of a thing on one occasion becomes a very inessential feature upon another. Now that I am writing, it is essential that I conceive my paper as a surface for inscription. If I failed to do that, I should have to stop my work. But if I wished to light a fire, and no other materials were by, the essential way of conceiving the paper would be as combustible material; and I need then have no thought of any of its other destinations. It is really all that it is: a combustible, a writing surface, a thin thing, a hydrocarbonaceous thing, a thing of eight inches one way and ten another, a thing just furlong east of a certain stone in my neighbor’s field, an American thing, etc., etc., ad infinitum ... My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.
-- (James, 1890/2007, p. 333, italics and capitals in the original)

We have to take into account that so far there is no clear experimental evidence supporting both the indirect (the semantic hypothesis) or direct (the cognitive definition of affordance) route between perception (vision/touch) and action (Osiurak at al., 2010).  An alternative vision of the relationship between perception and action has received more empirical support (Adolph, Eppler, & Gibson, 1993).

Given this premise, it is not surprising that cognitive psychology has had a very limited impact on interaction design and that the original enthusiasm for a potential contribution to the design of “information processing” artifacts (Carroll, 1989) soon disappeared following the evidence that cognitive psychology had very little or no impact at all on design practices. As a result, the relationship between psychology and interaction design was best described as a relationship for mutual opportunity to learn (Carroll, 1991).

As opposed to representational theories of the human mind, soviet psychology attributes a special role to tools. Tools are, , as remarked by Victor Kaptelinin, integral to a fundamental feature of the socio-cultural approach, namely the process of mediation. And it is specifically on mediation that I would like to elaborate more Victor Kaptelinin’s description and report on my own experience of the role of mediation in the design process.

16.10.2 Mediation and its genesis

Mediation is a central aspect in Vygotsky’ s human psychology - constantly present in all his dynamic theoretical elaborations. The specific role that Vygotsky assign to tools can be summarized in this principle: human mental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate these mental processes. Yet, in order to understand the mediation process we have to consider its relationship with the other two main topics of Vygotsky's approach, that is the social genesis of human cognition and the developmental (genetic) method (Wertsh, 1985).

The starting point of my argument is the difference between mediated and non-mediated activities - a distinction that is related to the difference between elementary and higher mental functions: The central characteristic of elementary functions is that they are totally and directly determined by stimulation from the environment. For higher functions, the central feature is self-generated stimulation, that is the creation and use of artificial stimuli, which become the immediate causes of behavior (Vygotsky, 1978; p.39)

Mediation is usually presented as a way of transmitting existing cultural knowledge, here I will argue in favour of the other role of mediation (cf. Bødker & Klokmose, 2011), namely that of producing new meanings (and thus knowledge) by means of transforming the objects we interact with; the creation and use of artificial stimuli. This role I trace back to the seminal work of Vygotsky on children’s play (1933/1982).

It is worthwhile to note that Vygotsky - in order to present his ideas about children’s play - takes his point of departure in a very early idea of affordance, that of Kurt Lewin’s valence.  Vygotsky quotes a study carried out by Lewin where it is shown how very young children in the attempt to exploit the opportunities for action offered by a stone exhibit a behavior that is strongly determined by the conditions in which the activity takes place.

In the following videos we can observe the original recording of the Kurt Lewin’s study. The first video presents the interaction with the stone by Hannah (19 months old), while the second video shows the performance of Han (who is older than Hannah).

Video 1: Hannah is one year and seven months old. The stone has a positive valence in the momentary living space of the child. The child is attracted by the stone. In order to sit down, the child has to turn around, that is away from the goal. This detour to reach the goal is extremely difficult for children.

Video 2: Hans solves the problem in an intelligent fashion. He does not lose sight of his goal

For Vygotsky the interaction exhibited by the two children and the description provided by Kurt Lewin is a real illustration of the extent to which a very young child is bound in her/his action by situational constraints. He states:

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to Lewin's experiment showing the situational constraints on activity than what we observe in play. It is here that the child learns to act in a cognitive, rather than an externally visual, realm by relying on internal tendencies and motives and not on incentives supplied by external things. ...Lewin concludes that things dictate to the child what he must do: a door demands to be opened and closed, a staircase to be run up, a bell to be rung. In short, things have an inherent motivating force in respect to a very young child’s actions and determine the child’s behavior to such an extent that Lewin arrived at the notion of creating a psychological topology
-- (Vygotsky, 1978; p. 96)

Instead, for Vygotsky:

in play, things lose their motivating force. The child sees one thing but acts differently in relation to what he sees. play the child creates the structure meaning/object, in which the semantic aspect – the meaning of the thing – dominates and determines his behavior. To a certain extent meaning is freed from the object with which it was directly fused before. I would say that in play a child concentrates on meaning severed from objects, but that it is not severed in real action with real objects.
-- (Vygotsky, 1978; p. 96 – 97; italics in the original)

However, here comes an interesting consideration, namely that in the genesis the separation is not totally arbitrary:

This is not to say that properties of things as such have no meaning. Any stick can be a horse, but, for example, a postcard can never be a horse for a child. Goethe’s contention that in play any thing can be anything for a child is incorrect. Of course, for adults who can make conscious use of symbols, a postcard can be a horse. If I want to show the location of something, I can put down a match and say, “This is a horse.” And that would be enough. For a child it cannot be a horse: one must use a stick. Therefore, this is play, not symbolism. A symbol is a sign, but the stick is not the sign of a horse. Properties of things are retained, but their meaning is inverted, i.e., the idea becomes the central point. It can be said that in this structure things are moved from a dominating to a subordinate position.
-- (Vygotsky, 1978; p. 98)

Indeed, there is experimental evidence in social play to support that meaning is understood not by the shape, colour or other features of the objects involved in the activity but by the actions the object allows to be performed (Szokolsky, 2006)

It’s the action pattern that provides the cue for what is intended, not the objects.Indeed there is evidence that very young children (12 – 18 months old) imitate significantly more often when the pattern of action performed by an adult involves (is mediated by) an object compared to a condition where the same pattern of action is executed without any object (Rizzo and Carnesecchi, 2011). Pretend play is a privileged way of staying in touch with the environment as well as stepping out of the environment to mentally modify it.

For me, the more dramatic example of this was provided by the children involved in the design of POGO world (Rizzo et al 2003; Decortis and Rizzo, 2002).

Pogo Mosaic. A collage of snapshot of pogo prototyping from version 1 (up left) to version 2 (bottom right).
Figure 16.1: Pogo Mosaic. A collage of snapshot of pogo prototyping from version 1 (up left) to version 2 (bottom right).

Together with Françoise Decortis and Patrizia Marti we were in charge  of the mock-upping and testing (role prototyping through dramatization) of the design concepts produced by the Domus Academy. And what we observed was that kids had no problems at all in overruling the intended use of the mock-up and produce new opportunities for actions and relationship with existing objects.

In the POGO dramatization we observed how childrens’ behaviour was guided by a merge between the sensory-motor affordance of the mock-ups and the meaning of the current situation. The same object, for example the pogo torch (a device to capture and project sounds and images), was used as a way to talk to yourself in one situation or as a way to move very large objects in another situation according to the meaning the children were negotiated in their play.

Video 3: A short clip of different situtations where children use the first generation of POGO mock-ups

This resulted in new functionalities that were not anticipated by the design team. The attempt to give new objects with specific functionalities to children in order to see what role the objects would play in their activity did not work. As the children did not get directions by a teacher, they appropriated the tool to the game they played, thus producing new meanings on the fly. These new meanings were however linked to the actions (movements) made feasible by the objects.

It was pretty clear that we, the designers, were thinking about functions and they, the children, where negotiating and producing meaning through their activity: Meaning comes first, function later.

An interesting observation was that new opportunities for action introduced by the children (that is, specific manipulations of the torch or of the mambo) had a deontic power that sensorimotor affordances did not have: Children imposed the new opportunities for action onto their peers: “Nooo, it is not that way... look!” A situation never observed for any sensorimotor affordance (ways of grasping, pushing or waving).

Such observations inspired me to look for theoretical elaborations of the concept of affordance, which led me to Michael Tomasello’s idea of intentional affordances and their role in children’s cultural learning. Tomasello notes that children are involved in intentional mirroring process (imitation and in some sense emulation) and through these processes, the children start to perceive objects and artifacts as elements that evoke a set of affordances, beyond basic sensory-motor affordances:

Such affordances rest upon the understanding of the intentional relations that other persons have with that object or artifact-that is, the intentional relations that other person have to the world through the artifact.
-- (Tomasello, 1999, pp 84-85)

This way of producing and sharing new objects’ attributes had a profound impact on the design of POGO and subsequently influenced the whole design strategy:

  • I) POGO world was built on the idea to allow composition/recomposition of existing tools, and to promote construction/deconstruction of new tools by the children and teachers
  • II) The development of prototypes embodied the same approach: the tools were built through a strategy named “Smart Shopping”: deconstructing existing hardware and software tools (joystick, console, screen, cameras, memory-card, rfid, editing software, file management systems) and constructing POGO tools.
-- Rizzo and Rutgers, 2004, p 3.

Most of this was done in playful sessions involving designers, psychologists, and teachers (and sometime selected children) where a mix of mock-ups, existing objects, semi-working prototypes were put on stage following a hint script and improvisational theatre techniques (Rizzo and Bacigalupo, 2004). All the materials were used to explore new territories of interactions and the ease of which the materials propagated among the team members was also tested.

A few year later, Banzi, the team leader and inventor of Arduino at Ivrea, made a similar point (although not mentioning the social dimension) by introducing the term Tinkering to the interaction design community (a term originally coined by Francois Jacob in 1977 in biology):

We believe that it is essential to play with technology, exploring different possibilities directly on hardware and software - sometimes without a very defined goal. Reusing existing technology is one of the best ways of tinkering. Getting cheap toys or old discarded equipment and hacking them to make them do something new is one of the best ways to get great results
-- Banzi, 2009

One of the best definitions of tinkering, as also acknowledged by Banzi, is the definition provided on the former website of the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco:

Tinkering is what happens when you try something you don’t quite know how to do, guided by whim, imagination, and curiosity. When you tinker, there are no instructions-but there are also no failures, no right or wrong ways of doing things. It’s about figuring out how things work and reworking them. Contraptions, machines, wildly mismatched objects working in harmony- this is the stuff of tinkering.

Tinkering is, at its most basic, a process that marries play and inquiry.

16.10.3 Conclusion

I believe that to “tap into” the heuristic power of Activity Theory we need more analytical tools that, on the one hand,impactdesign processes, and, on other hand, may have an impact directly on the artifacts we design. To my mind, there is plenty of room at the interplay between sensorimotor and intentional affordances (Rizzo et al, 2009); a room that combines the dynamic and evolving relationship between non-mediated and mediated action, a room that needs to be explored and exploited in the design of human interaction with her/his environment.  

16.10.4 Additional References

  • Adolph, K. E., Eppler, M. A., & Gibson, E. J. (1993). Development of perception of affordances. In C. Rovee-Collier & L. P. Lipsett (Eds.), Advances in infancy research Vol. 8, Norwood, NJ: Ablex. pp. 51-98
  • Banzi, M. (2008) Getting Started with Arduino. O’Reilly/Make Books
  • Carroll, J. (1987) Interfacing thought: Cognitive aspects of human-computer interaction. Cambridge, MA Bradford Books/MIT Press.
  • Carroll, (1991) Designing Interaction: Psychology at the Human-Computer Interface. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press
  • Decortis, F. & Rizzo, A. (2002). New active tools for supporting narrative structures. Personal & Ubiquitous Computing. 6 : pp. 416–429
  • James, W. (2007). The principles of psychology, Vol. 2. New York: Cosimo Classics. (Original work published 1890)
  • Osiurak, F.;  Jarry, C., Le Gall, D. (2010) Grasping the affordances, understanding the reasoning: Toward a dialectical theory of human tool use. Psychological Review, Vol 117(2), Apr 2010, pp. 517-540.
  • Rizzo, A. and Carnesecchi, M. (2011) Il ruolo euristico degli oggetti nell’apprendimento sociale (The heuristic role of objects in social learning). Paper presented at the XXIV Congresso  Nazionale dell A.I.P. Genova 19 -21 Settembre, Italy.
  • Rizzo, A. and Rutgers, J. (2004) The Construction/Deconstruction of Ambient
    CHI 2004  Workshop  Eds by  Anton Nijholt, Thomas Rist, Kees Tuijnenbreijer Lost in Ambient Intelligence? 24-29 April, Vienna, Austria
  • Rizzo, A., Del Monte, M., Rubegni, E., Torsi, S. (2009). The interplay between sensory-motor and intentional affordances. In Workshop on Children & Embodied Interaction. Ed by Alissa Antle at IDC09.  3 – 5 June, Como, Italy.
  • Rizzo, A. & Bacigalupo, M. (2004) Scenarios: Heuristics for action. In: Proceedings of XII European Conference on Cognitive Ergonomics, Living and Working with Technology, ed. D. J. Reed, G. Baxter & M. Blythe, EACE pp. 153-160.
  • Rizzo, A. Marti, P. Decortis, F., Moderini, C., Rutgers, J. (2003) The design of POGO story world. In Hollnagen E. Handbook of Cognitive Task Design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003. pp.577-602.
  • Szolonsky, A. (2006). Object use in Pretend Play: Symbolic or Functional? In Alan Costall and Ole Dreier (Eds.) Doing Things with Things. Ashgate Publishing. Pp. 67–85.
  • Tomasello, M. (1999) The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge MA Harvard University Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press (Original work published 1933)
  • Wertsh, J.V. (1985) Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge MA Harvard University Press.

Rizzo, Antonio (2011). Tools. Retrieved 0000-00-00 00:00:00 from