AEIOU Framework

AEIOU is a heuristic to help interpret observations gathered by ethnographic practice in industry. Its two primary functions are to code data, and to develop building blocks of models that will ultimately address the objectives and issues of a client.

One of our principal analytic frameworks for looking at and understanding a situation is the AEIOU framework. What is important is not only understanding and describing each element of the framework, but also understanding the interactions between the elements. [E-Lab 1997]


AEIOU stands for 5 elements to be coded: Activity, Environment, Interaction, Object, and User.

  • Activities are goal-directed sets of actions—paths towards things people want to accomplish. What are the modes people work in, and the specific activities and processes they go through?
  • Environments include the entire arena where activities take place. What is the character and function of the space overall, of each individual's spaces, and of shared spaces?
  • Interactions are between a person and someone or something else; they are the building blocks of activities. What is the nature of routine and special interactions between people, between people and objects in their environment, and across distances?
  • Objects are building blocks of the environment, key elements sometimes put to complex or unintended uses (thus changing their function, meaning and context). What are the objects and devices people have in their environments and how do they relate to their activities?
  • Users are the people whose behaviors, preferences, and needs are being observed. Who is there? What are their roles and relationships? What are their values and prejudices?


  • Materials are gathered via ethnographic methods: notes, photos, videos, interviews, field observation, etc.
  • During field observation, use the AEIOU framework as a lens to observe the surrounding environment.
  • Record observations under the appropriate headings.
  • Supplement direct observations with photos or video tape when appropriate.
  • Review and cluster observations to disseminate higher-level themes and patterns.


The AEIOU framework was originated in 1991 at Doblin by Rick Robinson, Ilya Prokopoff, John Cain, and Julie Pokorny. Its aim was to help analyze Ethnomethodology data and Conversation analysis with MECE categories.