Stephen Voida


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Stephen Voida is a lecturer and research scientist in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science, an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction, and a certificate in Cognitive Science from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Arizona State University. His research explores the development of novel user interfaces for information management that embrace the potential of emerging technologies but are also grounded in theories of cognition and studies of real-world work practice. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation; the Computing Research Association; the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada,; the Alberta Informatics Circle of Research Excellence; SMART Technologies; the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command; and the Steelcase Company. Contact him at

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Hincapié-Ramos, Juan David, Voida, Stephen, Mark, Gloria (2011): Sharing availability information with InterruptMe. In: Proceedings of the 2011 International Conference on Uniquitous Computing , 2011, . pp. 477-478.

Hincapié-Ramos, Juan David, Voida, Stephen, Mark, Gloria (2011): A design space analysis of availability-sharing systems. In: Proceedings of the 2011 ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology , 2011, . pp. 85-96.

Voida, Stephen, Tobiasz, Matthew, Stromer, Julie, Isenberg, Petra, Carpendale, Sheelagh (2009): Getting practical with interactive tabletop displays: designing for dense data, "fat finge. In: Proceedings of the 2009 ACM International Conference on Interactive Tabletops and Surfaces , 2009, . pp. 109-116.

Voida, Stephen, Greenberg, Saul (2009): WikiFolders: augmenting the display of folders to better convey the meaning of files. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2009 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2009, . pp. 1679-1682.

Voida, Stephen, Mynatt, Elizabeth D. (2009): It feels better than filing: everyday work experiences in an activity-based computing syst. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2009 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2009, . pp. 259-268.

Voida, Stephen, Mynatt, Elizabeth D., Edwards, W. Keith (2008): Re-framing the desktop interface around the activities of knowledge work. In: Cousins, Steve B., Beaudouin-Lafon, Michel (eds.) Proceedings of the 21st Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology October 19-22, 2008, Monterey, CA, USA. pp. 211-220.

Voida, Amy, Voida, Stephen, Greenberg, Saul, He, Helen Ai (2008): Asymmetry in media spaces. In: Proceedings of ACM CSCW08 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work , 2008, . pp. 313-322.

Goecks, Jeremy, Voida, Amy, Voida, Stephen, Mynatt, Elizabeth D. (2008): Charitable technologies: opportunities for collaborative computing in nonprofit fundraisin. In: Proceedings of ACM CSCW08 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work , 2008, . pp. 689-698.

Voida, Stephen, Edwards, W. Keith, Newman, Mark W., Grinter, Rebecca E., Ducheneaut, Nicolas (2006): Share and share alike: exploring the user interface affordances of file sharing. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2006 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2006, . pp. 221-230.

Voida, Stephen, Podlaseck, Mark, Kjeldsen, Rick, Pinhanez, Claudio (2005): A study on the manipulation of 2D objects in a projector/camera-based augmented reality en. In: Proceedings of ACM CHI 2005 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems , 2005, . pp. 611-620.

MacIntyre, Blair, Mynatt, Elizabeth D., Voida, Stephen, Hansen, Klaus Marius, Tullio, Joe, Corso, Gregory M. (2001): Support for multitasking and background awareness using interactive peripheral displays. In: Marks, Joe, Mynatt, Elizabeth D. (eds.) Proceedings of the 14th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology November 11 - 14, 2001, Orlando, Florida. pp. 41-50.

Voida, Stephen

16.11 Commentary by Stephen Voida

In this chapter (as well as in numerous previous books and articles), Kaptelinin provides a thoughtful and comprehensive review of Activity Theory, its history, and some of the many ways that the conceptual framework has been taken up and appropriated by the CHI and interaction design community.

Whether explicitly acknowledged as such or not, Activity Theory has had a significant impact on the way that researchers and practitioners have approached the design and evaluation of interactive systems in the mobile and ubiquitous computing era. Bannon and Bødker introduced Activity Theory to the interaction design community at around the same time that Weiser published his seminal article establishing the vision for ubiquitous computing (Weiser 1991). While this wasn’t a coordinated or intentional effort, both researchers were responding in their own way to the limitations of computing technology and the way that we conceptualized people’s relationships with computers at the time. The desktop computing paradigm of the early 1990s placed practical limitations on the contexts in which human–computer interaction could occur, but the movement towards making computers smaller, more mobile, and more often embedded into other objects made it clear that computational tools would soon permeate the everyday world and play an much more significant role in all kinds of human activities. Activity Theory broke from the established theories of interaction-as-dialog and cognition-as-information processing to provide a lens for understanding how humans might interact with ubiquitous computational technologies in a much greater breadth of contexts beyond number crunching and word processing in the workplace.

One of the most striking things about the relationship between Activity Theory and HCI is the framework’s continued success and longevity as a relevant way of thinking about the mediating role of computational tools in the face of a dynamic and rapidly evolving technological landscape. Not only has Activity Theory been adopted as a general-purpose analytic tool within HCI (cf. section 16.3.4, above), the conceptual framework has been extended to better support reflection about the temporality and interconnectness of activities in knowledge work organizations (Boer, van Baalen & Kumar 2002) and to incorporate the notion of external environmental factors (Döweling, Schmidt & Göb 2012). It has also been used as the basis for new methodologies that aim to make sense of empirical data collection carried out in complex, collaborative work environments, such as hospitals (Bardram & Doryab 2011).

But perhaps the most significant re-purposing of Activity Theory has been in re-casting what was primarily an analytic, inspirational, and discursive tool to one that has served as a guidepost in both the design and implementation of interactive systems. While the early command-line and windowed GUI interface paradigms were largely focused on supporting the creation or manipulation of a single file, document, or electronic artifact at a time, Activity Theory challenged the premise that computational support should focus on interaction with a single, decontextualized document at a time. Activity Theory’s emphasis on articulating the dynamic, at times complex, and occasionally conflicting relationships among subjects, tools/artifacts, and social/environmental context has both influenced the structure of various personal information management and desktop interfaces (including those enumerated by Kaptelinin in section 16.3.5), as well as the underlying data representations that are used to organize electronic artifacts and support further exploration of what has become known as the “activity-based” or “activity-oriented” computing movement.

In my research, I have found that the theoretical framework provided by Activity Theory-and particularly the modern instantiations articulated by Engeström (1987) and Boer et al. (2002)-align and resonate surprisingly well with empirical observations of the ways that information workers organize their workspaces (e.g., Malone 1983), the ways that they transform themselves in the process of carrying out information work (e.g., Kidd 1994), and how they handle transitions among and interruptions within ongoing activities throughout the work day (e.g., González & Mark 2004). In the systems that I built to support information work and explore the role of activity in interface design, these points of resonance helped to shape both the systems’ interface design and their underlying data structures. The Kimura system (MacIntyre et al. 2001) displayed interactive visualizations of ongoing activities on an electronic whiteboard to facilitate multitasking and activity awareness. Each of the visualizations brought together representations of the computer application windows (mediating tools) that had been used over the course of the activity, along with icons representing the people (community) with whom further collaboration would be required in order to bring the activity to a successful conclusion. The Giornata system (Voida, Mynatt & Edwards 2008) extended Kimura’s model of activities to include discrete electronic resources and broadened the system’s focus from primarily supporting multitasking to also facilitate collaboration and evolving personal information management practices. The data structure behind each activity in Giornata encoded a user-generated series of tags describing the current goals or meaning of the activity (which could change over time); a flexible set of documents and applications, both live and archival, representing the computational tools used to mediate, transform, and generate information content; and a “palette” of contact icons allowing quick access to and information sharing with the other people associated with the activity. Over the course of this research, I identified a number of key challenges that are brought to the fore when an activity-theoretical perspective is used in the design process for both desktop and ubiquitous computing systems (Voida, Mynatt & MacIntyre 2007, Voida 2008). Like Kaptelinin, Nardi & Macaulay’s activity checklist (1999), these challenges serve as scaffolding to transition between various facets of the Activity Theory framework and the articulation of concrete system requirements.

Even though Activity Theory has been part of the theoretical tool belt in HCI for nearly two decades, there are still areas in which the flexibility of the framework raises practical issues about how to apply its concepts most effectively. For example, the hierarchical structure of activities and the inherent variability in the granularity at which people describe-and organize-their ongoing activities sometimes makes it difficult to adequately model the relationships at play in empirical data, especially across multiple individuals or multiple activities. Although an Activity Theory analysis may be carried out at any of the levels of the hierarchy (e.g., operation, action, activity, or aggregate/higher-level activity), different people tend to articulate their activities at different levels of detail, depending on, for example the scope (i.e., complexity, anticipated duration, or importance) of the activity, the person’s role in the activity, and the perceived expertise or familiarity level of the interviewer/listener. Likewise, computational systems that aim to explicitly model activities as part of the user experience often cannot anticipate at what level of detail individuals might wish to represent their work-for example, “editing a revision of a chapter” versus “writing a book” (Voida, Mynatt & MacIntyre 2007). These differences sometimes make it difficult to anticipate what specific types of computational support might be appropriate or helpful at a given time. Furthermore, facilitating collaboration through computational activity representations when participants have created representations of their work at different levels of granularity can be problematic.

One of the relatively underutilized aspects of Leontiev’s framework in interaction design is his focus on the continual development of activity systems. Historically, most personal computing systems have been designed to represent the state of a data structure at a particular point in time (the present). Representations of temporality have tended to exist as simple linear state-management tools (e.g., undo and redo) or very formal representation of milestones and revision numbers, such as those found in version control and transaction-based database systems. In most conventional operating systems and mobile computing platforms, users must maintain their own representations of information-through-time, constructing and maintaining their own artifact histories, often by duplicating documents at each milestone or using auxiliary information systems (like e-mail) to archive the state of a document through multiple points in time. Providing better solutions for these actions is becoming ever more urgent as computational systems enable the creation and sharing of more and more content through an increasing diversity of platforms and online services. If our computational systems were to better reflect the activity-theoretical idea that activities continually develop and evolve, we might arrive at better support for information management, long-term information curation, externalization, and routinization, but the interaction techniques for dealing with this kind of temporality are neither widely utilized in mainstream computing systems nor will they be as familiar as the typical application- and document-centric interaction paradigm.

16.11.1 Additional References

  • Bardram, Jakob and Doryab, Afsaneh (2011): Activity analysis: applying activity theory to analyze complex work in hospitals. In: Proceedings of ACM CSCW11 Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. March 19–23, 2011, Hangzhou, China (pp. 455–464). Available online
  • Boer, Niels-Ingvar, van Baalen, Peter J., and Kumar, Kuldeep (2002): An activity theory approach for studying the situatedness of knowledge sharing. In: Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conferences on System Sciences. January 7–10, 2002, Big Island, Hawaii.
  • Döweling, Sebastian, Schmidt, Benedikt, and Göb, Andreas (2012): A model for the design of interactive systems based on Activity Theory. In: Proceedings of the ACM CSCW12 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. February 11–15, 2012, Bellevue, Washington (pp. 539–548).
  • González, Victor M. and Mark, Gloria (2004): “Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness”: Managing multiple working spheres. In: Dykstra-Erickson, Elizabeth and Tscheligi, Manfred (eds.) Proceedings of ACM CHI 2004 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 24–29, 2004, Vienna, Austria (pp. 113–120). Available online
  • Kidd, Alison (1994): The marks are on the knowledge worker. In: Adelson, Beth, Dumais, Susan and Olson, Judith S. (eds.), Proceedings of the ACM CHI 94 Human Factors in Computing Systems Conference. April 24–28, 1994, Boston, Massachusetts (pp. 186–191).
  • Malone, Thomas W. (1983): How Do People Organize Their Desks? Implications for the Design of Office Information Systems. In: ACM Transactions on Information Systems, 1 (1) pp. 99-112.
  • MacIntyre, Blair, Mynatt, Elizabeth D., Voida, Stephen, Hansen, Klaus Marius, Tullio, Joe and Corso, Gregory M. (2001): Support for multitasking and background awareness using interactive peripheral displays. In: Marks, Joe and Mynatt, Elizabeth D. (eds.), Proceedings of the 14th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology. November 11–14, 2001, Orlando, Florida (pp. 41–50). Available online
  • Voida, Stephen (2008): Exploring user interface challenges in supporting activity-based knowledge work practices. Doctoral dissertation. Atlanta, Georgia, Georgia Institute of Technology.
  • Voida, S., Mynatt, Elizabeth D., and MacIntyre, Blair (2007): Supporting activity in desktop and ubiquitous computing. In: Kaptelinin, Victor and Czerwinski, Mary (eds.), Beyond the desktop metaphor: Designing integrated digital work environments. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press (pp. 195–222).
  • Weiser, Mark (1991): The computer for the 21st century. In: Scientific American 265 (3), pp. 94–104.