Photo of placid stream in a mountain setting from The River Parable blog post

The River Parable

December 14, 2022

Late one afternoon, several villagers saw a child drowning in the river. They rushed out and rescued him. While applying artificial respiration, they noticed there were two more children in the river. They dove in and saved them, too.

Moments later they saw two more children in the river, and began calling for help. More villagers responded, forming a human chain to reach the children who were appearing in the river in alarming numbers.

At last, one of the rescuers broke away from the group on the bank and walked away, heading up the river. The others yelled, “Where are you going? You have to help us save these children!”

“There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river,” she replied. “I’m going upstream to find out why they’re falling in.”

The river parable is often attributed to Desmond Tutu, the South African bishop and human rights activist, though versions of the story have been told by many others.

Understand the true nature of the problem

When solving any problem, just like a doctor making an accurate diagnosis, it’s important to know if what you’re seeing is a symptom or a cause. If you have an infection, a band-aid won’t bring relief.

Similarly, if you’re diagnosing a design problem, an effective response requires identifying and addressing the root causes.

Does this sound familiar? You’re in a meeting to discuss a new initiative. Even as the contours of the problem barely begin to take shape, someone blurts out a solution. Soon enough, the focus becomes tactical, and no one stops to question whether or not this is the right intervention – or the right problem to solve,

Seek a more expansive point of view

Everyone wants results, the sooner the better. Sadly, there is no magic shortcut. Every design problem has some sort of impetus – a reason driving a need to act. Why this? Why now? At the most basic level, a successful outcome relies on how well you understand:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do they want from you?
  • What do you want from them?

Most often the focus is on that last question, with all sorts of assumptions made about the first two. As in the river parable, look farther upstream to gain insights about your audience’s challenges and motivations. What will it take to close the gap between the way things currently are, and the way you – and they – would like them to be?

Is design tactical or strategic?

“Trying to figure out what our audience wants seems like a lot of trouble. It must be expensive. We just need [ fill in the blank ].”

This is another way of saying: “We don’t really believe this project matters. What you’re doing adds little value.” A real solution to a real problem is never a “just.” It’s a word that disparages everything that follows. It’s also another way of saying that design is simply a tactical exercise. You know, make it look nice by Friday.

However, this mindset fails to account for the cost of ineffective action. What is it worth to you to solve this problem?

Inquiring minds want to know

Solving design problems involves having the curiosity to identify – and then eliminate – the gaps between what you know, and what you need to learn. Perpetually questioning assumptions increases the likelihood of uncovering deeper problems.

  • What is happening now? How do we want that to change?
  • What is getting in the way of the change we seek?
  • How can we overcome those obstacles?

In the case of the river parable, because the immediate need prompted urgent action, the initial response was reactive. If projectiles are flying at your head, you duck. If kids are drowning, you save them. But without asking questions, the real problem remains.

If the problem is a website, what business objective are you trying to solve? Maybe too many site visitors leave after viewing a single page. Maybe the navigation is preventing people from finding useful information or completing tasks. Analytics can tell you part of the story, but asking questions can identify why site visitors behave the way they do.

Walk a mile in their shoes

One of the most vital problem-solving skills is empathy – the ability to consider another person’s perspectives, experiences, or motivations before making a judgment about them. Empathy is fed by humility, leads to better questions, and inspires an open mind.

  • Imagine a typical day of a very specific customer or client. What is going on that influences how they might interact with you?
  • Does your project team include different points of view? Encourage open dialog. No one has cornered the market on keen insights.
  • How can you involve your audience to solve this problem? How can you make it easy for them to participate?

Designers are particularly adept at imagining and testing multiple scenarios or prototypes before making recommendations to move forward.

Lessons of the river parable

We often get the wrong answers because we are asking the wrong questions. Many problems persist because we take action before considering underlying issues. The more challenging the problem, the less likely the answers are immediately evident.

The best design is inspired by curiosity, empathy, and a process that engages the target audience to meet strategic objectives.

Check out our blog post about market research – Why Ask Why?

Dan Woychick is a problem solver, creative collaborator, and owner of Woychick Design. He helps purpose-driven organizations raise awareness, inspire donors, and move people to action. Connect here: Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter

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