Digital makes it so much easier to design based on how the things we create are being used. In a complex, rapidly changing world, there is no better strategy.

Don’t design the experience. Design for the experience. Don’t design to control. Design to give control. Digital design requires both empathy and humility. Empathy so that you want to truly understand your customers. Humility so that you will say, “They’re doing that? That’s amazing. I’d never have thought of that, but I’m sure going to adapt our design so that they can do more of that, and more easily.”

Simon Cross, a Facebook product manager, gave a brilliant presentation at the Mind The Product conference in London in September. He talked about how Facebook constantly learns and adapts based on what its customers are doing.

He gave the Facebook profile picture as a great example of how Facebook designs with its customers. Back around 2005, “People were changing their profile picture, sometimes 20 times a day,” Simon explained. “What’s going on? When the team looked into it they found that people were using the profile picture to tell the story of their lives.”

So, Facebook set up a small team of three staff to help people share photos. They kept things very focused. There were a lot of big competitors in the market. “And they all had incredible features,” Simon explained. “The team only had the capacity to build one feature. They thought about it for a long time. And the feature they built was tagging.”

Most of the other photo sites were focused on photos as images of places and things. But most Facebook photos were of people, and that’s why tagging was such a success, because Facebook allowed you to put a name to a person. Within two to three years, Facebook had more photos than the top 10 competitors combined, because it had understood what its customers really wanted to do.

Facebook observed that it needed to give people a way to publish the pictures that describe what they were doing right now. People were using their profile picture to showcase the most important event happening for them at a particular moment. That lead the team to introduce the concept of the cover photo. “Cover photos took the weight off the profile picture,” Simon explained.

“But people were still changing their profile picture far more than was expected. What was happening? When the team looked into it they noticed that people were using their profile picture to set status: ‘I’m on holiday.’ So, the team introduced a feature that allowed you to use your profile for status, add words, set a time range, and then it changes back to your regular profile picture.”

“But people were still changing their profile picture more than expected. What was happening? When the team looked into it they found that many people were using their profile picture to show support for a cause.” So, the team built tools that allowed them to adapt their profile to promote a cause (Je Suis Charlie, the rainbow filter, etc.).

“Instead of trying to change people’s behavior, they codified it, and they allowed the behavior to scale to tens of millions more people,” Simon summarized.

Editor's Note: Gerry McGovern will be speaking at CMSWire's DX Summit in Chicago. The conference runs from Nov. 14 to Nov. 16 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel. McGovern's keynote will look at the culture required to support digital transformation.