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 hardly noteworthy. If you were to make a histogram of all the meals I’ve ever cooked, pizza would almost certainly be the tallest bar, followed by a long tail of various grilled meats. What was unique about this particular pie is that it marked the first time I made my own dough.

I’ve been making my own tomato sauce for years, but have been happily buying 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 the How to Cook Everything series, seems to understand this issue well. In a recent New York Times piece, he explains his strategic framework for cooking at home, which just so happens to share a tool that we use often at The Understanding Group: the continuum model.

time-work continuum

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

At TUG, when we start collaborating on a new project, we use a version of this simple model to help frame the discussion of what would be good to do as well as to capture the collective intent of stakeholders and project owners. 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. 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.”

engagement-conversion continuum

It’s important to note that the two sides of the continuum are not mutually exclusive. They both represent essential aspects that need to be addressed: service existing customers while acquiring new ones. In some cases, 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. It’s by placing more value on one aspect relative to the other that can meaningfully inform decisions going forward.

Bittman recognizes this point as well: “to get the biggest return on your investment, whether in time or work, you need to cook toward the extremes of the continuum.” He goes on to note that, in the context of cooking, equal amounts of time and effort are perfectly fine, especially if cooking itself is a rewarding outlet (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, becomes the key tactic in service of the broader goal of encouraging more people to cook more often.

His time/work continuum provides the home cook a lens through which to view cooking decisions in the abstract, while at the same time illuminating his or her own intent. It does not prescribe a best way to make a meal, much less suggest specific ingredients or techniques (although Bittman himself certainly does). 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 would be good to do depends on what your organization is trying to accomplish. Early on in a project, continuums give teams a tool to discuss and uncover intent before getting into the details of an implementation. And at the end of a project 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.

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