There are few digital innovations as popular as they are maligned as dating apps. The world of ‘dating’ has always been a messy experience; getting to know people, let alone choosing to partner with them involves a lot of ups, downs, and time spent getting to know each other. It’s no surprise that designers have tried to make this easier, creating apps that allow you to quickly scan for and (hopefully) meet many potential mates. It’s dating at scale, but with that efficiency can come some serious drawbacks. Sometimes referred to as the dating apocalypse, the success of dating apps has shown that matching people may be easy, but creating a digital experience that helps people form healthy relationships is much, much harder.

In this episode of Wireframe, host and Adobe Senior Director of Design Khoi Vinh and producer Laura Morris sat down with users of dating apps and the designers that are trying to make them better. Understandably, there were more than a few dating ‘horror stories’ resulting from matching on apps.“You’re taking this very abstract or messy subject matter of humans wanting to meet each other, and you’re really trying to not just put technology around it, but to put an experience around it that heightens people’s openness to getting matched to one another. That was very eye opening for me; it was really interesting to see how this is really all about UX and design,” said Vinh. Listen to the episode here, and read on for some more behind-the-scenes insights from this look at ‘dating by design.’

Click here to read a full transcript of this episode.

Episode 13

Why creating ‘matching experiences’ isn’t enough

In America, online dating is now the most common way for couples to meet. The idea for this episode first came from producer Laura Morris, who noticed, while most of her single friends are using dating apps, almost all of them are “very unhappy” with their experiences and outcomes. Looking at these digital products, Vinh concluded that many of them, while well meaning, have a near impossible task. They are reducing something messy and qualitative–meeting and getting to know someone with all the variables involved–to something quantitative: records in a database. 

“To some extent dating is always going to suck, so it might be unfair to say that these apps are responsible for it, but at the same time, the technology should not just be looking to replicate the offline world in a digital experience. It’s supposed to make dating better, more satisfying, and more rewarding. I think what dating apps should be doing is trying to think about the whole journey of dating beyond that first match or the first date. This is true for all designers — think about the full journey of the user or the customer,” said Vinh. 

Facilitating more ‘IRL’ experiences

Matching is just the first part of a much bigger user journey, and it ignores the most important part of dating — actually meeting. Vinh and Morris spoke with Tim MacGougen, chief product officer at Hinge. Hinge, like several new apps on the marketplace, is trying to make the online dating experience more successful (with success equaling more dates, more conversations, and not just more swipes and matches). The company has made a series of design choices aimed at making people consider those they’re matching with in more intentional ways, often by offering much more information about potential users quicker.

“We were creating fewer matches, but those matches were way more likely to result in conversations and dates. And so our users were going on more dates and having more conversations, even though they had fewer matches,” he said.

For Morris, this came as a surprise during taping. MacGougen and other product designers are essentially creating experiences that aim to get users off the platform, rather than hooked on it.

“I was surprised at how many solutions were getting back to an ‘IRL’ experience,” she said. “I think that after all the backlash to Tinder’s speedy swipe design, newer apps are focusing more on respect for the other person and trying to feel less like shopping and more like old-school meeting.”

Remember the ‘individual’ when designing experiences, dating or otherwise

Other new apps on the marketplace are taking fresh approaches to connecting people, as well. Vinh and Morris spoke with Dylan Petro, the founder of Bounce. Bounce requires users to log in at a specific time, match with someone they’re interested in going on a date with, and then actually meet them in person that same night. The point is to get the users to the ‘IRL’ experience as quickly as possible.

“Design can achieve sort of broad success for a large group, like in the cases of these dating apps, but on an individual case there are always going to be exceptions. That might be fine when you’re designing a shopping cart or checkout experience. But when you’re designing something as emotionally delicate as dating, it’s probably going to produce some really unfortunate outcomes for certain individuals out there,” he said.

“I guess a takeaway is that design often thinks of users as a large group of people, and you want to get acceptance among lots of users. But it’s also important to remember that users are the individuals too,” he said.

Intentional design decisions to serve the whole user journey

Vinh and Morris also spoke with Robyn Exton, founder of the dating app HER (which was created by and for queer women), about the way she approached creating the app. While HER’s intention is to facilitate real-life dates, everything about the digital experience has been molded to the unique needs of the community it serves. Exton originally sought to recreate the experience of Grindr, a dating and hookup app primarily for gay men, but for queer women, she quickly realized the differences between the two user groups. For example, queer women send many more messages than the gay men using Grindr, and are much less eager to meet up quickly.

“It just changed the relevancy of all these features. Seeing someone that is very close to you is irrelevant if you are not meeting up within a one hour window. Most of our users were arranging dates five to seven days in advance,” she said. 

Exton hopes these design decisions will make HER a more positive and successful place to be for her users. Morris feels this is especially important in online dating experiences.

“I think this episode, like several others, asks designers to be responsible to their users. Dating is hard, and these apps can make users feel bad about themselves or act disrespectfully towards others. Designers should think about their users’ mental health and about social respect, and incorporate that into what they do. We shouldn’t be treating each other like shoppable commodities,” said Morris.

In the end, Vinh found himself sympathetic to the challenges of the designers who work on these apps. “It’s not just that dating is hard to translate into an app. Dating is just hard—period, especially in this age where mobile technology is changing the way we socialize so drastically.”

Behind Wireframe is a blog series taking you behind the scenes of Wireframe, Adobe’s design podcast, hosted by Sr. Director of Design Khoi Vinh. Subscribe to Wireframe, and follow along every week as we uncover more design insights.