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Ellen Christiansen is Professor at Aalborg University. She works with activity theory within the humanistic computer science studies, concentrating on the communicative aspects of systems development, especially in relation to artificial intelligence
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Boedker, Susanne, Christiansen, Ellen, Nyvang, Tom, Zander, Pär-Ola (2012): Personas, people and participation: challenges from the trenches of local government. In: Proceedings of the 12th Participatory Design Conference. Volume 1 Research Papers , 2012, . pp. 91-100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2347635.2347649
Kanstrup, Anne Marie, Christiansen, Ellen (2006): Selecting and evoking innovators: combining democracy and creativity. In: Proceedings of the Fourth Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction , 2006, . pp. 321-330. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1182475.1182509
Boedker, Susanne, Christiansen, Ellen (2006): Computer Support for Social Awareness in Flexible Work. In Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 15 (1) pp. 1-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10606-005-9011-y
Kanstrup, Anne Marie, Christiansen, Ellen (2005): Model power: still an issue?. In: Bertelsen, Olav W., Bouvin, Niels Olof, Krogh, Peter Gall, Kyng, Morten (eds.) Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing 2005 August 20-24, 2005, Aarhus, Denmark. pp. 165-168. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1094562.1094590
Boedker, Susanne, Christiansen, Ellen (2004): Designing for ephemerality and prototypicality. In: Proceedings of DIS04: Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, & Techniques , 2004, . pp. 255-260. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1013115.1013151
Muller, Michael J., Christiansen, Ellen, Nardi, Bonnie A., Dray, Susan M. (2001): Spiritual life and information technology. In Communications of the ACM, 44 (3) pp. 82-83. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/365181.365211
16.13 Commentary by Ellen Christiansen
Designers need tools for understanding the context of whatever new artifact they are working on. Certainly, among academically trained interface designers, activity theory has been instrumental to such understanding since Bødker’s book ‘Through the Interface’ came out. It was, as pointed out by Kaptelinin in this chapter, the very same year (1991) Carroll, in a book with the title ‘Designing Interaction’ moved the HCI agenda from ‘interface’ to ‘interaction’, while pointing out that for this purpose: designing interaction, cognitive psychology alone fell short as a foundation understanding context.
Bødker’s book ‘Through the Interface’ established the ‘subject-instrument-object’-relationship as an indispensible syntax for legitimate sentences in the field of HCI. She made it clear that the interface is not an endpoint, but a window to a world of activity, which people are inclined to embark on anyways. Hence, the success of an interface depends on the degree to which the interaction brings this world closer. Since then, humans have come to experience interaction in an explosion of ways, on digital arenas for artwork, gaming, and amusements of all sorts, to the extent that today we have a hard time telling what, regarding interaction, is text, and what is context, what is work and what is leisure.
Hence, when, in the field of HCI, activity theory have matured to take position between what Kaptelinin calls “the visible landmarks of the theoretical landscape of Human-Computer Interaction”, we may ask if activity theory is more than a memorial. From a practitioners’ point of view, at least, we may ask, not what activity theory delivered to yesterday’s HCI-designers and design thinking, but what it has to offer the designers of tomorrow.
Given that digital technology pervades all aspects of human life, almost as the air we breathe, it can be tempting to dismiss questions about context all together: Designers were never able to predict use, and who would know today, which needs to fulfill tomorrow? Soon it will be hard to distinguish a non-robotic human from a robotic one, Human-Computer Interaction may dissolve, interaction designers may work in global app-stores, and the only thing we know for sure is that we breathe, and that the stock market is a roller-coaster.
More persistent than these fluctuations, however, is the fact of the pendulum: what comes up, must go down. While, at this moment rational thought and critical reflection about context seems out of fashion, in the next moment, which may well be soon, designers will experience a craving for being able to reduce complexity of context in ways they can comprehend, communicate, criticize, and improve. To satisfy that hunger the concept of activity, and the models for analysis presented in Kaptelinin’s chapter 16 on ‘Activity Theory’ will be a place to start to feed. Here you find key concepts for understanding the way humans interact with the world: ‘tools’, ‘mediation’, and ‘development’ in relation to ‘action’, ‘activity’ and ‘operation’, modeled in a hierarchical structure, a key rack, where to hang your experiences. Taken as a tool for designerly thinking, activity theory will help designers to communicate, sort out, categorize and evaluate experiences of any kind imaginable - definitely not an end-point, but possibly an access-point for communication about artifacts, of a trustworthy kind.Not only is Victor Kaptelinin extraordinarily well read in the research literature on how and why to apply activity theory, he is also sufficiently experienced as a design practitioner to know designers’ needs regarding tools for thinking. Therefore, his account of activity theory in this chapter provides both a good blend of key-rack models as well as a scholarly grounding of the theory behind the key-racks.