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  • Design Process

  • 16.Apr
  • 5 Intelligent Questions to Ask
  • Here are 5 categories of questions good designers ask. I’m looking forward to being more self-aware of the questions I ask in the generative phase, making sure that they are diverging and not converging. I think it likely requires a little patience but I’m willing to wait for the ideas to ripen.

Using Activity Centred Design for Innovation

When designers are presented with a project, the first step is to place the issues in context and define the problem. Gathering and organising the related people, places, events, activities, rules and traditions associated with a project often happens in an organic or haphazard fashion throughout the design process. This can pose challenges, especially when several people are required to work together on a large project. Activity-Centred Design can help.


Here is a research paper I’m writing discussing the model that I’ve been developing to help a multidisciplinary team collaborate throughout the design process. Enjoy. 🙂 

Using Activity Centred Design for Innovation


When designers are presented with a project, the first step is to place the issues in context and define the problem. Gathering and organising the related people, places, events, activities, rules and traditions associated with a project often happens in an organic or haphazard fashion throughout the design process. This can pose challenges, especially when several people are required to work together on a large project. Activity-Centred Design can help.


Momentum for Human Centred Design (HCD) is gaining speed in the design community; ranging from ethnographic research primers (AIGA, 2007), human-centred design workbooks for developing countries (IDEO, 2008) to giving users co-creative roles in the development of products and services (Bennett, Krishnamoorthy, Eglash, & Rarieya, 2006). These methods can improve the focus on the end-user, rooted in solving real needs through audience observation and participation, that are less reliant on a designer’s intuition alone. However there has been some concern that an over-emphasis on HCD relies too heavily on the end-user’s input. Activity Centred Design may provide a better framework for analysing the consumer’s needs in a human-centred way. (Norman, 2005)

So what is Activity Centred Design? ACD is based on activity systems theory, also known as Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT). Formulated by Russian psychologists in the 1920’s, CHAT is a social theory focused on artefact-mediated and object-oriented activities. (Vygostsky 1978) The concept being that one never reacts directly to the environment, but rather mediates the environment via culture, tools and signs. (Helsinki 2008)

This theory is particularly relevant for designers who create those tools and signs. Product designers, typographers, architects, all must understand the actions, tasks and operations that are used in the scope of an activity to create an effective solution. A modern psychologist describes the need for this view of thinking:

Activity systems are driven by communal motives that are often difficult to articulate for individual participants. Activity systems are in constant movement and internally contradictory. Their systemic contradictions, manifested in disturbances and mundane innovations, offer possibilities for expansive developmental transformations. (Engestrom, 2000)

While the theory of activity systems is comprehensive, the model used to describe it can be useful as a mental model for organising and articulating the information gathered during the design process. Thus, making it easier to visualise and identify the relationships between people, objects, and the factors that govern them, in a way that can be universally communicated to the development team. See Figure A.


[FIGURE A.] The structure of a human activity system.  (University of Helsinki)


This paper illustrates how a design process model based on Activity Theory (see Figure B) can be useful in enabling a team to better collaborate, communicate and organise a project through each stage of the design process. This model helps to:

  • Empower each member of the team to contribute to the discovery process, no matter their discipline, by helping members to articulate and identify the issues using a common language.
  • Visualise how the issues are connected in a way that reveals problem relationships, and opportunities to improve them through design and research.
  • Outline specific areas of the project to determine which factors are being ignored or gaining all of the attention.


Figure B. Activity Centred Model for Design

[FIGURE B.] Activity Centred Model for Design (Beaumont, 2009)
Incorporating the elements of several models, the ACMD can be used as a visual mediation device to guide a team through the 4 steps of the design cycle to improve communication and organisation. These models include “The Structure of Human Activity Model”  
(University of Helsinki) the “Stanford Design Innovation Map”  (Stanford University) and the Elements of Design Thinking Model  (Barry & Beckman, 2008)  


The ‘activity triangle’ will be discussed first, with the iterative design process and the Stanford Design Innovation Map explained afterwards. But now an explanation of the activity triangle elements, using a restaurant as an example:

Creator. This the person or group of persons that are responsible for the project. This could be an entrepreneur, a designer or a team of researchers for example. When a team meets for the first time to begin a project, knowing what each member is able to create can offer an opportunity to use the most from each individual. An example of this would be the entrepreneur who decides to start a restaurant business who then gathers the skills of his/her employees.

Receiver. This is person or group of persons that will receive the product or service that has been created for them. Also known as the target market, the audience or end-user, it’s important that this element’s needs are met in order to achieve success. An example of this would be the customer who has come to the restaurant to dine.

Rules/Traditions. These are part of the circumstances that cannot be controlled (such as there are 24 hours in a day) or the laws or traditions that guide the activity. Deadlines, intellectual property, health and safety and superstitions are other considerations. Examples Rules/Traditions in a restaurant would be food safety laws, business opening hours, food expirations, the taste preferences of the region, eating customs, seating capacity and so on. 

Community. Usually the receiver doesn’t operate in isolation, so the broader community needs to be considered. These are the people who are related to the other elements in the activity triangle but are not the intended receiver. Examples of community for a restaurant would be the hostess, the chef, the waiter, other customers, the menu designer, food critics, food suppliers, the health authority, business bureaus, accountants and so on.

Roles/Divisions of Labour. Looking at members of the community and rules/traditions, how is the power shared between them? Is there a hierarchical structure? Is there an order in which things must be done? Are there roles that could be added or removed to improve the outcome for the receiver? These are all questions that can help guide a team to understand the stakeholders that would impact the outcome for the receiver. Examples of roles/labour in a restaurant would be that the abilities of the waiter would be limited to taking orders or bringing food to the table, but the role would not include cooking the food due to lack of skills or other restrictions. Also a chef would not be expected to manage the finances of the restaurant, etc.

Artefacts/Tools/Instruments. These are the objects that are used to mediate the activity. In the case of a person getting a bank loan, this could be the application form, or the literature that advertises or explains the service. It’s important to note that whether it’s the object that is being sold or the service, one still has to have something designed to mediate the activity. Other examples of this category would be a typeface, a website, a physical object or anything else that can be detected by the senses. It’s largely how these tools are designed that can affect the outcome. Examples of artefacts/tools/instruments in a restaurant would be the oven, the utensils, the menu, the furniture, the music, the food, and how these are presented.

Success. These are the specific ways that the receiver has their needs met (not the creator’s needs, remember that’s a different triangle[1]). This might be creating a service that is affordable, easy-to-use, reliable and solves a need that was previously unmet. In other words balancing the viable, feasible and usable/desirable needs of the user.  (Stanford University)

Now an examples of how the Activity Centred Design Model can aid in collaboration and innovation discovery, using a restaurant to illustrate, will be explored. Looking at potential risks that can occur in the activity and using the triangle to analyse them, can allow the team to anticipate problems and determine roles to prevent such incidents. This will be explored using ACMD in the following case.


Consider the implications of a menu that doesn’t inform the customer that a certain dish contains peanuts. If the consumer orders the dish and is allergic to peanuts, this could have a serious result. This is due to the fact that the artefact or instrument used to help the customer select their dish did not consider the rules of the activity, and also perhaps didn’t consider whose role it would have been to ensure that the dish was described properly. This brings up the question, “Is it the responsibility of the designer, the owner or the health authority?”


Case #1: The Food Allergy Customer

PROBLEM: A customer who is allergic to peanuts, may accidentally order a dish with that ingredient and have a severe medical reaction. Here is how that model might look like if the restaurant team and designer come together to explore the problem. See figure C.


Figure C. Activity Centred Design Model (restaurant example)

[FIGURE C.] Activity Centred Model for Design (Beaumont, 2009)
This model illustrates how a problem can be more fully explored using the activity theory framework. It also allows individuals to collaborate on problem solving in a clear way aiding team communication.


  1. The restaurant team discovers the rule and decides to look over the menu to ensure that any dish that might pose an allergy threat is identified.
  2. The owner decides it is his/her role to communicate to the designer which dishes need warning labels and the owner will ensure that information is printed on the menu.
  3. The designer, knowing the problem and working with the team, devises a system where customers know they need to inform the waiter of their allergy and their plate is specially marked in the kitchen to notify the staff of what food should not be on that plate.
  4. The restaurant staff decides that one person who is certified in first-aid should be available for every shift to assist if such a case arises.
  5. The owner decides to enrol certain staff in first-aid training.
  6. The chefs suggest that a medical expert come to educate the team on food allergies, so that they can understand if they need to make adjustments in food preparation.


This case suggests that teams made of diverse stakeholders in the decision making process, such as designers working with the client, company staff, and an allergy expert, empower the individuals to make improvements. Using this activity-centred system helps the team collaborate more easily, leading to more innovative products and services.

It is when members of the team are left out of the process that the opportunity for innovation suffers. This exclusion leaves each member to work in isolation without a clear process to make improvements based on what they are able to observe. It also makes it difficult to share information unless the individual requests it specifically, or offers it without request.

This collaborative method can be used in a variety of circumstances. It can also be strengthened using the Iterative Design Process Cycle, which will be explained next.


The Activity Centred model can help a team organise the information and issues surrounding the end-user, but is that enough? Having a defined but flexible set of steps to enable the team to discover and understand the problem can offer opportunities to get the most out of the problem-solving process.

The Iterative Design Process Cycle organises the problem solving process into four categories: problem finding (observing and research), problem selecting (reframing and contextualising), solution finding (converging and establishing core user needs) and solution selecting (experimenting and prototyping).  (Owen, 1998) See Figure D.

Figure D. The Iterative Design Process Cycle

[FIGURE D.] The Iterative Design Process Cycle (Beaumont, 2009)
This model combines the design thinking stages
(Barry & Beckman, 2008) with Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory  (Kolb, 1984) shown in lowercase.

  1. PROBLEM FINDING. Research methods such as ethnography, event mapping, literature reviews or personal observations are part of this stage. Each member will look at the problem a different way, allowing for a variety of information to be gathered.
  2. PROBLEM SELECTING. Problem selecting involves the team to compile the information that they have gathered, look for patterns in the data, step back and say, “What does this all mean?” Outcomes from this step could be personas, graphs and charts and storytelling. This can help the team uncover what the real problem is and then work towards solving that specific problem in the solution finding stage.
  3. SOLUTION FINDING. In solution finding, the team looks at the data, it’s meaning for the receiver, and then decides what the receiver’s needs are that must be met. Importantly, this is not about determining what features need to be included in the product or service, but rather what needs the user has that the product or service needs to resolve.  (Barry & Beckman, 2008) After the needs have been determined, the team is ready to experiment.
  4. SOLUTION SELECTING. In the experiment stage, the team creates the artefacts or tools that aim to solve the receiver’s needs and determines how well or how poorly the tool mediates those needs through prototyping. Adjustments are made and evaluated again using the first three stages of the design cycle. This iterative loop is used until the deadline ends, the money runs out, people get bored or a successful product has been produced—whichever comes first.

The last piece of the puzzle deals directly with the last step in the Iterative Design Process Cycle. This piece helps the team to evaluate the product or service according to three innovation factors: viability, feasibility and usability/desirability.  (Stanford University) This tool will be discussed next.


Stanford’s Design School (d.school) focuses on how multidisciplinary teams are able to create innovative products and services. One of the results of this work has been the Stanford Design Innovation Map. See figure E.

The concept being that when technology, business and human values are in balance, that is when design is at its best and innovation is most likely to be achieved. This is similar to IDEO’s design strategy (Turnidge, 2009), the CEO of which is also one of the founders of the d.school, David Kelley. (Businessweek, 2005)

A few simple examples will be used to illustrate how this map can be used to evaluate a product or service.


[FIGURE E.] The Stanford Design Innovation Map  (Stanford University). This model visualises how technology, business and human values need to be balanced in order to create an innovative design.


Examples of innovatively designed products tend to attract more attention, because of their popularity with the user. The iPod is a good example of this, as it fulfils all three values: using innovative technology that is functional (feasibility), offering an iTunes business to support continued purchases for the iPod (viability), and and easy-to-operate interface and musical reward that the user enjoys (usability/desirability). Of course, a more detailed explanation could be offered, but for the purposes of this paper only enough detail has been included to illustrate the principle.

Examples of products or services that don’t meet our need for innovation are much more plentiful but perhaps the causes of failure are not so easily identified. For this an example will be used that most of us have had an experience with—public toilets.

A toilet stall that separates the toilets, but doesn’t provide privacy is a good example of a product that focuses on feasibility (it was manufactured, it was installed, it divides the toilets) and viability (we made a profit) but ignores largely the usability/desirability factor. Let’s explore this problem further.

Consider this women’s toilet stall in an American airport:




The partition seems to be well made, but it is hung about a foot too high. The bottom of the partition is level with the top of the toilet seat. When the user sits on this toilet, their head is below four feet of divider, but their bum is just half an inch above it. This configuration does not make much sense. Nor should anyone one be able to identify the underwear colour, size and brand of the woman in the stall next to her.

Additionally the door is hung on very wide hinges, that provide passers-by the opportunity to check-in on the condition of the stall user by looking through the 3 inch gap surrounding the door. Perhaps with this system, those waiting in the queue could decide which stall they would like to use based on the user’s taste in undergarments and jewelry whereas previously one could only make this decision on shoes.

To complicate the activity, there is the ultimate rule of airports that states you cannot leave your baggage unattended at any time. Is there room for the luggage to be in the stall? Is there a hook for a coat or a handbag? No. Perhaps these items could be used to cover the gaps left open by the partition to offer some privacy. Or the luggage could be stacked to keep the door from opening, or used as a way to improve one’s skills of juggling luggage over a toilet or overcoming a fear of enclosed spaces.

This last example demonstrates exactly what happens when a product or service is not balanced—the user has to make up the difference. When users have to make up the difference, it is likely because the design strategy was not human-centred and didn’t consider the whole scope of the activity or perhaps the team was not collaborating as they should? One might reason such was the case. It’s when one is able to see these on-the-fly ‘customer improvements’ that a need is revealed and an opportunity to innovate made clear.


In conclusion, the need for collaboration and understanding the user throughout the design process is a key imperative for innovation. It’s important that business, technology and human values are merged to create products and services that better society (Stanford design innovation map). This needs to be done in a way that considers the whole problem (activity theory), by solving it through an iterative design process based on research and experimentation (iterative design process cycle). Perhaps an Activity Centred Model for Design can help guide a team to more innovative solutions focused on user needs. Improving the impact of design and strengthening business for all involved.




AIGA. (2007, January). An Ethnography Primer. Retrieved February 2009, from AIGA: http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/ethnography-primer

Barry, M., & Beckman, S. L. (2008, July/August). Developing Design Thinking Capabilities. Retrieved February 2009, from Step Inside Design: http://www.stepinsidedesign.com/STEPMagazine/Article/28885

Bennett, A., Krishnamoorthy, M., Eglash, R., & Rarieya, M. (2006). Audience as Co-Designer: Participatory Design of HIV/AIDS Awareness and Prevention Posters in Kenya. In A. Bennett, Design Studies (pp. 189-197). Princeton Architectural Press.

Businessweek. (2005, August 1). Tomorrow’s B-School? It Might Be A D-School. Retrieved March 2009, from Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_31/b3945418.htm

Engestrom, Y. (2000). Activity Theory as a Framework for Analyzing and Redesigning Work. Ergonomics , 43 (7), 960-974.

IDEO. (2008, August). Human-Centered Design Toolkit. Retrieved January 2009, from IDEO: http://www.ideo.com/thinking/focus/social-impact/

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Financial Times/ Prentice Hall.

Norman, D. A. (2005). Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful. Interactions , 12 (4), 14-19.

Norman, D. A. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Owen, C. (1998). Design research: Building the Knowledge Base. Design Research , 19, 9-20.

Stanford University. (n.d.). A Multidisciplinary Approach. Retrieved January 2009, from Stanford d.School: http://www.stanford.edu/group/dschool/big_picture/multidisciplinary_approach_detail.html

Turnidge, R. (2009, January 9). A conversation at IDEO’s London Office. (C. Beaumont, Interviewer)

University of Helsinki. (n.d.). Cultural-Historical Activity Theory. Retrieved September 2008, from Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research: http://www.edu.helsinki.fi/activity/old/images/6akuva3.gif





Note: these are not the stakeholders that would impact the success for the creator, such as investors or company CEO’s, or the restauranteur. For that, a separate activity triangle would be used, where the investor is placed in the creator’s role and the receiver is the restauranteur. Interestingly, overlapping these two triangles can offer insight on where common interests overlap.



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