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  • Activity-Centered Design: An Ecological Approach to Designing Smart Tools and Usable Systems
  • Rob Harle
Activity-Centered Design: An Ecological Approach to Designing Smart Tools and Usable Systems by Geri Gay and Helene Hembrooke. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., 2004. 144 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 0-262 07248-3.

This book is essential reading for anyone involved with the design and development of "anything" and is especially relevant to the design of technological "things"—from handheld computers to virtual cyberspaces. Its basic message expounds the virtues of "activity-centered 5 design."

The theoretical basis of activity-centered design is located in a "social constructivist" approach and, simply stated, notes that learning is "a complex process in which an individual's cognition is defined by its relation to the material setting and the forms of social participation encouraged by those settings" (p. 53). To put this in the context of technological artifacts, of which tools are an example, the tool changes what the end-user does, and then, in a feedback situation, what the end-user does and wants to do modifies the design of the tool.

This is the theory; in practice, however, especially in the immediate past, this concept rarely has been employed. "Developer knows best" was the philosophy underpinning much of the activity of designer/developers (p. 18). This meant little or no dialogue or consultation with the users of the products; consequently much of the "technological junk" foisted upon the public was (and still is) irritating to use, underutilized because of the lack of user-friendliness and, therefore, wasteful of both time and energy.

One can only applaud any attempts to critique bad design and to foster research into both ACD and HCI [End Page 261] (Human Computer Interaction) and their resultant practical applications and artifacts; however, it should never have been necessary! Much of what this slim volume attempts to convey is glaringly self-evident. If designers put aside their electronic prowess and plastic injection molding magic for just a few minutes and used some common sense, the world would be a much better place.

An example of what I call the "brilliance-stupidity" paradox will illustrate my point. My 5-year-old laptop recently had a CMOS battery failure. I marveled at the designer's brilliance as I attempted to "deconstruct" the computer; after many hours I managed to find the battery, then rang numerous computer shops to buy a new one. "Sorry don't sell 'em probably have to chuck the laptop away." Yeah right! I bought a cordless phone battery (same specs) and installed it—this time in a position that could be accessed without completely disassembling the entire machine. The stupidity of placing a "consumable" in such a place is the other side of the paradox.

If activity-centered design and the wisdom of this book is understood and utilized by designers, it will go a long way toward decreasing the endemic design stupidity in many of our day-today gadgets and products. These range from sauce-bottle tops that cannot be opened without a mechanic's multi-grip pliers to VCRs that a few years ago were so over-designed that consumers refused to buy them!

The book has an excellent bibliography and six chapters as follows: Activity Theory and Context-Based Design, Understanding Perspectives: Social Construction of Technology, Creating a Sense of Place: Designing for Online Learning Conversations, Blurring Boundaries: A Study of Ubiquitous Computing, Designing for Context-Aware Computing, and Configural Analysis of Spaces and Places.

While the book applies to artifact design generally, it is very much specifically orientated toward mobile, wireless and computer-based technologies. Probably its greatest strength, other than putting designers of these technologies on notice, is its insistence that these technologies must be integrated "within cultural and social contexts." I found the book a little heavy with theoretical jargon, but this is all right, as the book is not really intended for general readership. [End Page 262]

Rob Harle
Southern Cross University, Australia. E-mail: <>.


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pp. 261-262
Launched on MUSE
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