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Reading :: Through the Interface

Posted by: on Dec 21, 2010 | No Comments

Through the Interface: A Human Activity Approach To User Interface Design
By Susanne Bodker

Here’s another book from my grad school days – although it wasn’t on my reading list. I had just become interested in activity theory due to a talk David Russell gave one of my classes in either fall 1994 or spring 1995. At the time, activity theory had only been discussed by a handful of rhetoric and writing types, so I began looking outside the discipline, specifically at human-computer interaction and related areas (since I was very interested in how electronic communication would impact our field). This 1991 book was in the library, and I remember being incredibly excited as I leafed through it, then borrowed it, then bought my own copy.
The first thing I want to point out about the book? No triangles. When Bodker wrote her dissertation, which was the basis of this book, she hadn’t heard of Yrjo Engestrom, whose work (and triangle diagrams) has since become the face of activity theory in the West. Bodker eventually heard about Engestrom at a conference, and ends up throwing in an incidental citation to Learning by Expanding in the book, but the work is actually based directly on Leont’ev and Vygotsky. Consequently, Bodker focuses much more on the levels of activity than we might expect, and leans on Wittgenstein to discuss objects and representations. It’s a really interesting take on activity theory, particularly after being soaked in Engestromian AT for so long.
But this book is useful for interaction designers even if they don’t care to learn about activity theory. That’s because Bodker was also involved in the fabled UTOPIA project, in which the techniques of Participatory Design were developed. So Bodker’s empirical cases, theorized within a second-generation AT framework, are interesting from a designer’s point of view: inventive, often low-tech, driven to encourage participation. For instance, she discusses mockups developed with paper and colored slides, designed both to educate her users about computer interfaces (most had never seen one) and to encourage their full participation (they could modify the paper mockups easily). From my perspective, it’s a fascinating account of how these techniques developed, how Bodker theorized them, and how they came to impact UTOPIA and Xerox PARC. (They have, of course, impacted a range of disciplines in the intervening time; see my article “Lost in the Translation” for a fuller account.)
Although the book still bears the marks of a dissertation, it’s still a solid piece of scholarship. It inspired me deeply when I read it, and I was saddened when it disappeared along with a box of books during my move from Texas Tech. I finally got around to ordering a replacement, and I’m glad I did – it still holds up. Pick it up if you’re interested in AT, PD, or interaction design.

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