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Activity Centred Design

Moving beyond the user.

Jun 10, 2018 · 3 min read

Activity Centred Design (ACD) is a model of design that focuses on how a system produces an outcome as a result of activity. The focus is on the whole system rather than just the user.

It’s important to note that ACD is a model, not a process. ACD is just one of many perspectives you can employ when designing.

The ACD model is an X-Ray into the social and technical workings of an activity. It considers the broader system beyond a single user. For example, this perspective may allow us to see it’s more appropriate to focus our design work on the community or social rules rather than the individual users interface.

It looks like this:

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The model represents a whole activity. Some outcome backed by a motivation at the top provides context.

The juicy bit is the interconnected lattice with a node for each element. The specifics of each node are important. Adding, removing, altering and considering these node over time and how they impact the other nodes is key to developing insight.

It’s possible for nodes to contradict each other and the overall design still function, just like in real life not everything is logical. In existing systems the history of nodes is often important to look at to gain proper context.

A note about terminology

ACD has its roots in Activity Theory and it’s worth pointing out some of the words used such as “goals” and “tasks” have specific ordering and hierarchy.

The key ones, using an example of the activity of listening to music while driving:

  • “Task” (Select a radio station)
  • “Actions” (Turn radio on, Select next station)
  • “Operations” (Press On button, Turn dial to the right)

The activity nodes

  • Motivation — Avoid boredom, avoid awkward silence, mood change, entertainment etc
  • Outcome/Goal — The resultant activity e.g. Music playing in the car
  • Object/Receiver (What is observed) — The car
  • Subject/Creator — Driver and passengers
  • Community — Other drivers, radio stations, advertising
  • Division of Labor — Passenger may/may not operate radio too
  • Rules and Rituals — Go to favorite channel first, polite to ask passengers for input, requires minimal distraction to operate, time sensitive i.e. news/drive program etc
  • Tools and Artifacts — Interface may be shared with GPS, may be Bluetooth device etc

What’s ACD good for?

ACD can be ideal for new projects, new padagrims or encouraging innovative rethinks. The model can also be effective in creating very focused products as elements that do not support the desired activity are naturally removed.

The model encourages participants to take a broader perspective of the system by “telling the story” through the model. This quality makes it a good tool for generating better design outcomes in businesses that are either too siloed or too heavily geared towards one skill set e.g. technical teams that tend to see all problems as technical problems.

And not so good?

  • Less suited to finer refinements
  • May not be useful if designers have narrow scope of latitude or are conducting low level design work.

Download a poster

You can download an Activity Centred Design poster of this model.

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Stick it up in your workplace, use it to help illustrate your workflow to colleagues or adapt and build on it.

Article first published on 26 February 2015 on

Dermot Holmes

I write about the fundamentals of design and digital.

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