Swiping, Prompts and The Ick: Has design changed how we date forever?
From Match.com to Tinder and Instagram, the internet has shaped many of our first steps in love. But would we behave differently if our apps did? We speak to dating app users and their design teams to find out.
It’s my fifth conversation about Jonah Hill in a week and I’m beginning to question my purpose on Hinge. Newly polyamorous, fresh to the dating app scene, and grappling with Prompts for the first time, this is the moment I realised how Groundhog Day-boring dating apps can be. That, and the fact I have altogether zero interests beyond my favourite celebrities.
Despite my own earth-shatteringly dry conversations I have shared on these apps, anyone who follows @beam_me_up_softboi can confirm that online dating today is an absolute shitshow. So much so that there is a dictionary of lingo explaining the bizarre set of behaviours that have emerged since dating became chronically online – ‘ghosting’, ‘greyrocking’, ‘cookie jarring’, and the more Hansel and Gretel ‘breadcrumbing’. But how much of this is down to the way these dating apps are designed? And what does the experience look like for users still sticking it out on dating apps for love?
Today, if you want to meet someone online, you’ll likely head to one of the biggest players first. Badoo, Bumble, Grindr, Hinge, Plenty of Fish, Tantan and Tinder are among the most well-known, though there are hundreds, all with different and often overlapping approaches to design. Your “average” dating app tends to put a particular emphasis on user pictures, for example, but each does it differently. Where Grindr, the pioneering gay dating app, features a three-across grid of scrollable profiles, apps like Tinder and Bumble – an app where women “make the first move” – tend to show one profile at a time, like cards stacking on top of each other.
What makes a successful dating app is hard to pin down, but it often comes from a mixture of finding an untapped gap in the market, and luck. The most successful and enduring apps also have a knack for design, which we can see by tracing the evolution of the market. Every few years, one player will introduce a design feature that not only cements its place in the industry, but feeds into the way we socialise.
“Everything has been immaculately designed to keep you hooked. Much like the sad Duolingo owl who sends you a message if you haven’t practised Spanish for a few days.”Josh Green
Hinge, an app which emphasises long-term connections over hook-ups, has been behind a few of those big splashes recently. As the Hinge users we spoke to can testify, it’s an app with undeniable design chops. “I think Hinge is incredibly well designed and I hate it!” Josh Green shares with us. “The language of the app, the notifications you get while you’re at work – everything has been immaculately designed to keep you hooked. Much like the sad Duolingo owl who sends you a message if you haven’t practised Spanish for a few days. There are the silly features like Standouts – ‘Content from people most your type. Refreshed daily’. Refreshed daily? I mean it’s ridiculous, but I’m still intrigued by who the people are, and the fact Hinge has kind of worked out my ‘type’.”
Sophie Willison deleted a slew of dating apps recently, but affirms the effectiveness of Hinge’s curated section too. “I feel like it’s really good at choosing people who have very symmetrical faces, it’s bizarre.”
Hinge first began carving out a niche for itself when it moved from a swipe-based interface to longer, scrollable profiles. These profiles took more time to make, which Hinge hoped would foster more intentional interactions; it went on to be a major selling point. Then in 2021, it rolled out Voice Prompts – the first dating app to build them directly into profiles. “Within the first four months of launching, we saw over one million users record a Voice Prompt,” a Hinge spokesperson reveals.
“Height and job titles are rarely good predictors of a successful relationship.”Dr. Alina Liu
The feature went viral. TikTok and Instagram was inundated with screenrecordings of 30-second Prompts of a user offering ‘background music as you scroll” or their best celebrity impression. Its success was seen by others and duplicated widely. For Hinge, it had been about moving away from the selfie towards new forms of self-expression, spurred on by data revealing that 64 per cent of singles feel voice is an important factor in determining a connection. The feature did foster vulnerability, with some very specific effects. Because of Voice Prompts we now reveal what we sound like, not just look like, before a match even messages us. And occasionally, if you are very funny, this could end up being heard by thousands on TikTok. In 2023, dating is a public affair, which means the face users put forward is often an extension of a personal brand.
The adoption of Voice Prompts also turned sound into something that can rule out a relationship. “When Hinge updated and it had audio notes, I was like: ‘It’s so cringey’,” says Sophie. “But also, it is a really good way of listening to people’s voices and being like: ‘Okay, that is not a voice I could spend the rest of my life with’.” Voice recording more generally in dating UX has contributed to an odd nervousness in hearing how we, and our potential matches, sound. Sophie recollects a time when a person she had been speaking to sent her voice note for the first time. “I was like: ‘Oh my god, I’m scared because this is either gonna make or break this’. So I waited until I got home and I was in a place where I was ready to be broken or ready to be made.”
“Within the first four months of launching, we saw over one million users record a Voice Prompt.”Hinge spokesperson
There’s a strange amount of serendipity in dating app origin stories. In 2011, Hinge was invented by a student at Harvard where, almost 60 years earlier, two other students came up with the US’ first matchmaking service built through a computer: Operation Match. In some ways, it wasn’t too far off from the basic premise behind many dating sites today – the inventors had their own logic for sorting matches, which impacted who users decided to spend their time with. Before receiving matches, users were asked to fill out a paper survey about themselves and their ideal date, with questions ranging from situational to ones about height and race. (While certain studies suggest that proxy for online dating has increased the amount of interracial marriages in the US, racism in online dating is a historic issue that remains just as prevalent today even after many dating apps removed ethnicity filters in 2020.)
Operation Match has had a long line of descendants since. Perhaps one of the most famous among Gen Xers was also the first dating website – Match.com – which allowed anyone over 18 with an email address to browse and find matches based “on personal criteria”, Todd Krieger wrote in Wired in 1995. During the interview withWired, Match.com founder Gary Kremen revealed the idea came to him in the shower. In another curious parallel, the inventor of the Tinder swipe, co-founder Jonathan Badeen, came up with Tinder’s crowning jewel because of a shower almost two decades later.
“One morning, I was wiping the fog away from my bathroom mirror after a shower, and the swiping motion hit me as the easiest and most natural way for users to navigate from one potential match to another,” Jonathan once wrote. Before this, Tinder was using buttons to navigate between matches, which felt “clunky” to Badeen. “In a real world scenario, the decisions we make are quick, subconscious,” Jonathan stated in a live Q&A. “When we were developing Tinder, people’s profiles resembled a stack of playing cards – and from the beginning, I had a nagging desire to gamify it.”
This swiping game is so effective it has turned crowds of people into participants before. It remains a key part of the app today; if you swipe right, a green Like note spreads across a user’s picture, left leads to a red Nope. The simple function influenced practically every other player in the industry in one way or another, with apps like Bumble still using it today.
Gamification in dating apps is a contested topic. “When we think about games, there is a layer of detachment from reality. With games we think about winning points, getting to the next level,” says Dr. Alina Liu, a clinical psychologist whose specialisations include relationship challenges. So how does gamification impact how we form relationships? Alina thinks that “with the perception of choice in abundance”, it can become harder to know when to stop searching. “Think about shopping at a large grocery store versus a small corner store where you know what you need and where to find it. Because of the endless possibilities, we are pressured by the illusion to find the ‘perfect’ partner.”
“The very act of giving someone a rose is enough to immediately, and without fail, give someone the ick.”Josh Green
Tinder has a feature called Super Like which, according to the brand, is for “when Like is not enough”. It is an excellent example of how dating apps can resemble games, with unwritten rules. Hinge’s version of Super Like is Roses, which you can send to one person per day to declare your interest. “I mean these are a strange, worthless commodity,” Josh says. “Because the app expects you to use them sparingly [...] Yet, the very act of giving someone a rose is enough to immediately, and without fail, give someone the ick.” How well a potential match abides by the rules of dating apps – how keen they seem, how many messages they send in a row – factors into how we view people.
“Did they text you immediately after the first date or did they leave you on ‘read’ for three days before responding?” Alina writes in a piece on dating apps. “Every detail becomes a new set of filtering criteria to determine whether you will see this person again.”
Meanwhile, swiping has had such a momentous impact on how we view each other that there is now a whole term to define it: swipe culture – which suggests the move between more potential partners at a faster pace. Although, studies have pointed in different directions on whether dating apps increase casual sex. For example, a Norwegian study suggests that Tinder users aren’t having more sex than the rest of us. However, on the flipside, it seems like our experience on these apps might affect how open we are to sex. For example, a fascinating 2019 study showed that phone battery levels might actually affect our sexual decision making – the lower the battery the more “urgency” users feel around hook-ups.
Swipe culture is generally used as a negative term, although a rejection of it altogether can be seen as, at best, outdated and, at worst, sex negative. Particularly for those who are purely looking to explore sexually. Though, Alina points out “relationships that are purely physical are still a type of relationship”. Users looking for sex still need to be offered a place to respectfully talk through boundaries, likes and dislikes, STI statuses, etc.
Luckily, it seems those spaces might become more commonplace. There is a new wave of dating apps that are intentionally designed differently, growing in popularity just as more progressive relationship influencers are blowing up on Instagram and TikTok. Feeld is one of these apps, though it actually launched back in 2014. “When Feeld was founded, the world was not as open to the ideas it represents for the world of dating and relationships,” explains a brand spokesperson. Founded by Ana Kirova, who began her career as a designer and illustrator, Feeld is a sex positive dating app for “exploration, curiosity and pleasure”. Its design is built around making people, particularly queer people, feel welcome and at ease, with expressive 2D illustrations from Joey Yu integrated into the app.
“I waited until I got home and I was in a place where I was ready to be broken or ready to be made.”Sophie Willison
When you first sign up to the app, you’re given the option to choose from 20 gender identities and sexualities. “This is now a widely accepted feature [in the industry], but five years ago, identity options were much more limited,” says Feeld. The app also offers a Glossary to help users learn more about these options. Here, we can see how dating app design can not only increase the amount of safe spaces, but offer opportunities for users to explore their own identity, as well as sexual interactions or relationship dynamics they might not ordinarily have access to.
Lex – originally a dating app, now a space for queer friendship – is another app using design to signal a safe space. Like Feeld’s Paired Accounts, which make space for non-monogamous interactions, Lex has group messaging to encourage community – from basketball meet-ups and beyond. Its rebrand as a community-based app also says something about the market. Many apps are trying to become less prescriptive with their design today, and in the relationships that emerge through them.
“When you’re designing a dating app, you’re really just encouraging one-on-one interactions with a singular goal in mind – you’re focused on making a ‘match’ – find your person(s), go on a date, delete or repeat,” says a spokesperson at Lex. “With community-based apps, we’re really thinking more about building ongoing relationships (1:1 or group) across a whole range of different interests or connection points.” Lex’s new positioning might help to fill a huge gap in the industry for apps designed specifically for queer people to make friends, though some Lex users have pointed out that the same gap exists for queer users looking for sex and love.
“Because of the endless possibilities, we are pressured by the illusion to find the ‘perfect’ partner.”Dr. Alina Liu
While apps like Lex and Feeld offer space for new kinds of connections, perhaps it’s too soon to tell if they will tangibly result in more respect and awareness within our interactions. For Alina, there is still much apps can do to foster better, healthier relationships. “Height and job titles are rarely good predictors of a successful relationship,” Alina says. “I would like to see dating apps incorporating filters that are more relevant to a long-lasting relationship, such as communication and conflict resolution styles, values and how we handle stress.”
Even the perfect app, however, is unlikely to remove the awkwardness of first meetings. Unfortunately, at least in the blind date category, it seems it’s still as dull and painful as ever out there. One contributor shares with us a story in which they met an online match for the first time; it offers possibly the most damning indictment of dating apps yet. “Our conversation was dry – I asked if she liked cheese, she replied no, but said she didn’t mind mild cheese. She asked me what my dad did for a job, I said he was a civil servant, she asked if he liked it, I said I think he did.”
No matter what these apps do or don’t do, you can’t force a spark.
Copyright © Lucile Ourvouai, 2023
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.