So you might have heard of activity-centered design, or you might have not (see also this book). It's a reasonable concept that is becoming vogue recently. The key difference with user-centered design is that you chunk up stuff into typical activities people engage in, as opposed to according to classes of users (personas), or bodies of knowledge users have (mental models, visual metaphors, etc).
What ends up happening is that you then design products that are closely aligned to a type of activity people engage in. The artifact might:
- Replace a current artifact in the activity (mobile phones replaced walkie-talkies). This is the case when a more powerful technology can be leveraged.
- Might be complementary and enhance the activity (the flash complemented cameras to take pictures at night). This improves the quality of the activity.
- Might change the way people do things (desktop computers changed the way people wrote essays, as copy and paste afforded this, and malleability led to less time thinking and preparing and more time on the computer keyboard).
So what are the origins of activity centered design? I have a hint that some of my classmates at Berkeley had something to do with this, as when I was there in the early 90's my PhD colleagues were focusing on creating new frameworks for understanding how people use computers. And we would often get into very intense conversations about ontologies. My friends are now mostly professors somewhere, like Chris Hoadley, Noel Enyedy, and Bruce Sherin.
One camp would go back to the user (the traditional or symbolic cognitivists), and they'd say we need to understand people's mental models, artifacts affordances, user's goals, and all that stuff. These people considered users' the primary ontology, and their knowledge, goals, and beliefs were what their theories were made of. A secondary phenomena for them was users' social interactions. This group was closely aligned with traditionaly cognitive scientists such as Chomsky, Newell & Simon, and the mental models crowd.
Now, another camp, let's call them the social scientists (or alternatively called "situated cognitivists") would say that the primary unit was the social interation. All other cognition emanated from that, as we are fundamentally a social phenomenon. This group were more aligned with Vygotsky, Gibson, and Schon.
What was interesting was that both camps were equally represented at the university, and that we would often found ourselves in the same rooms, and classes, building on each other ideas. In many other places the two camps were more divided into different departments, but here, we were intermingled. So we contributed to this effort to improve how we design, and as a research community, I think it can help to have activity centered design as one more color in the palette when you consider how to go about your design work.