In Information Architecture, Modeling
Summary: Using a continuum model can help inform decisions by illustrating intent and trade-offs.

This past Saturday, I made pizza at home. This is not noteworthy. If you were to make a bar chart of all the meals I’ve cooked, pizza would be the tallest bar, followed by a long tail of grilled meats. What was unique is that it was the first time I made my own dough.

I’ve been making my own tomato sauce for years, but I happily buy frozen dough—mostly for the convenience. I’ve wanted to take the next step for a while now. But making my own dough always seemed like such a production.

Mark Bittman, the food writer and creator of How to Cook Everything, understands this issue. In a New York Times article, he explains his strategic framework for cooking at home. It also happens to share a tool that we use often at The Understanding Group.

time-work continuum

Bittman says you can think of any meal as a combination of time and work. Put in more effort and you can have dinner on the table sooner. If you have time to spare, put heat to work for you and eat with less effort (think slow cooker). This can be “plotted along a single X axis, measured by Time at one end and Work at the other.”

The continuum model

At TUG, when we start collaborating on a new project, we use a version of this simple model to help decide what would be good to do. We start by interviewing stakeholders and project owners. The conversations often reveal competing ideas, or tensions, that we plot on the axis. For example, one end of a continuum might be “acquire new customers,” with “service existing customers” on the other end. Another example might plot “engagement” opposite of “conversion.” These models set up a conversation where we work toward agreement on where the priorities lie. We tend to use several continuums at once to express various facets of a project, but the basic idea is the same as Bittman’s.

engagement-conversion continuum

It’s important to note that the 2 sides of the continuum are not mutually exclusive. They represent essential aspects that need to be addressed: service existing customers while acquiring new ones. It can be tempting to simply split the difference and choose dead center. But we challenge our client partners to venture to one side or the other. When you place more value on one aspect relative to the other, you meaningfully inform decisions going forward.

Bittman recognizes: “to get the biggest return on your investment, whether in time or work, you need to cook toward the extremes of the continuum.” He notes that, in the context of cooking, equal amounts of time and effort are fine, especially if cooking itself is rewarding (as was my pizza dough experiment). “But for everyday feed-the-family fare, you must be more efficient. Otherwise you’ll get frustrated and find your food elsewhere.”

Here, Bittman reveals the essence of his approach (and his underlying values): More cooking at home is good. Everything else is oriented around that premise. Efficiency, whether in time or effort, is the key to the broader goal of encouraging people to cook more often.

His time/work continuum provides the home cook a lens through which to view cooking decisions, while at the same time clarifying his or her own intent. It does not prescribe a best way to make a meal, much less suggest ingredients or techniques. The individual cook makes the call about how far towards either side to lean, given the occasion, the company, the context.

Similarly, there is no best way to organize the information on your website. What is good to do depends on what your organization is trying to accomplish. Early in a project, continuums give teams a tool to discuss and uncover intent before getting into the details of implementation. And at the end, they offer a way to evaluate success, by looking at how well the solution aligns with the original priorities.

Thankfully, evaluating the success of a pizza is much simpler: the lack of leftovers.

Use a continuum model to find the priorities in your next project

Over the years, TUG has developed a proven process for helping teams get aligned behind mutual goals, that we can translate into architectural plans for your website. We’d love to hear about your project and share how we can help.

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