Human-Centered Design vs. Activity-Centered Design

Donald Norman says “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful.” Abstract:

“Human-Centered Design has become such a dominant theme in design that it is now accepted by interface and application designers automatically, without thought, let alone criticism. That’s a dangerous state – when things are treated as accepted wisdom. The purpose of this essay is to provoke thought, discussion, and reconsideration of some of the fundamental principles of Human-Centered Design. These principles, I suggest, can be helpful, misleading, or wrong. At times, they might even be harmful. Activity-Centered Design is superior.”


-Donald A. Norman in Interactions, 12. 4, (July + August, 2005). Pp. 14-19.

The idea expressed above may seem controversial on the surface, but I think it makes perfect sense. In my Design for Context series (now long overdue for a third installment), I’ve talked about undertaking web design in a context that works. I think there is a flavor of that in the paragraph above. What need is there to consider the whole person (Human-centered design) when your design needs to cater to what that person wants to do with your product (Activity-centered design). Norman summarizes a key problem with HCD:

“If it is so critical to understand the particular users of a product, then what happens when a product is designed to be used by almost anyone in the world?”

according to Norman, HCD has resulted in a continuation of complex and confusing products because they try too much to cater to a vast array of human idiosyncrasies. Another interesting point Norman makes is that though ACD sounds like something lesser in scope than HCD, it actually requires all of the user-sensitive concerns of HCD, but also “…requires a deep understanding of the technology, of the tools, and of the reasons for the activities.” There’s a lot more to this article that I don’t have time for now. This is one to print, enjoy and mark-up. Thanks, as always Don, for turning us all on our ears. user-centered design, activity-centered design, ACD, HCD, Donald Norman, Usability, User Experience