Technology & Society

Designing Dating

I’ve been trying online dating recently, because that’s what single Londoners do in the summer. Because I work in tech, so far one of the most striking aspects of this experience has been how utterly disappointing the functionality and interface of the service I’m using is. That isn’t the fault of my potential dates, of course, but it did present me with an interesting design challenge. As I now know several people who are working on developing dating apps or websites, I’m putting my thoughts here as an invitation to design something better.

The service I’m using at the moment has a really cluttered dashboard which appears on the homepage when you log in. There is an app also which is a little more streamlined but they’ve managed to pack in way more unnecessary features than you’d think on a small screen. There is no need for this, ladies and gentlemen, none at all. Make it crisp, clean and light. There do not need to be three different ways to notify someone that you’re interested in them. One or at most two. I also don’t really need a ‘traffic’ dashboard: I’m not interested in the total number of people who’ve browsed my profile, only in the presumably far fewer people that I will actually want to go out with. I can see why they’ve done this: if you’re not getting many profile views the pool of people who might actually message you will be even smaller. On the other hand, a better matching algorithm would mean that you don’t depend purely on an arbitrary but large pool of viewers to potentially message you, but a much smaller and presumably more likely pool of matches.

The ‘match’ function on the website I chose isn’t doing anything. Actually, I HOPE it isn’t doing anything, because that would be better than what I suspect it IS doing, which is matching by most recent profile addition and closest geographic location rather than by my specified preferences. In a paid service this seems pretty disingenuous. The ‘search’ function works okay but has its limitations also because…

…There’s no way to archive profiles or sort the ones you’ve already looked at. So every time I search, the same group of people shows up over and over again, even if I’ve already looked at their profile and decided that, while I am sure they are all very nice people with deeply meaningful hopes and dreams, they write a very boring profile and I can’t be bothered to message them. I often can’t remember whether I’ve clicked on someone’s photo or not, so I find myself revisiting a person’s profile and only then remembering why I didn’t message them in the first place. If there were search AND sorting, on the other hand, I could make groups like “Totally not interested”, “Could be okay but show me some new results first” and “Definitely message immediately!” which would allow me consider all the potential matches much more quickly.

On this particular website, you can always message anyone. Uniquely among my female friends who have tried online dating, I haven’t had any really creepy or downright offensive messages. I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop. One way to keep that possibility to a minimum would be if the service only enabled messaging when both parties have agreed to it. Several other websites and apps do this: you can’t message the other person until both people agree to a match. This cuts down on the creepy factor and it also means you don’t spend time crafting the perfect message just for it to languish away unseen or ignored in the other person’s inbox. If they’ve agreed to talk to you, I assume they are more likely to respond when you message them.

My biggest bugbear with online dating or arranged dating in general is that it offers irrelevant selection criteria. For example, age isn’t really something I care about that much; for me it’s more about that person’s sensibility and sense of life direction than it is about their actual age. Yes, age roughly correlates to life experience and mindset (or at least is commonly expected to) but it’s not exact. So you’re only ever filtering for a quality you want by a proxy quality that you actually don’t care about. There are baseline qualities that most sites capture which, yes, fine, you probably do want to know that your partner has (or doesn’t have.) But most of the stuff that I find attractive in another person hasn’t yet been sufficiently algorithmically determined enough to make a checkbox out of it on a form. Or to put it another way: everyone in the world wants someone who is smart and has a sense of humour. EVERYONE.

The trouble is that those words have completely personal meanings to everyone also. For me, ‘smart’ doesn’t mean that they have a high IQ or a big degree (though those things rarely hurt), they have to be witty–I mean really witty–and capable of expressing that. Lots of people are very smart and while I may respect them, I don’t want to make out with them. I don’t really have a design solution for this one. Either it’s a matter of meeting all the possible matches and having slightly awkward conversations until I do find someone that fits all the non-tickbox-criteria, or… I need to get a lot better at computer science and start designing my own algorithms for this kind of stuff.

Finally, and this is definitely something that no app can help me with: the biggest problem I have with dating is how much easier it is to build up an imaginary picture of the wondrous qualities of an attractive stranger than it is to deal with the practical realities of an actual person. Even one that really likes you. Even one who has first-rate qualities.

I’m not talking about an attractive stranger on a dating app. If there is one thing I have learned from this experience, most people are really bad at selecting flattering photos of themselves. No, I mean the person you see reading The Decameron on the tube. The quirk of a smile on a stranger’s face as you both notice the sunset at the same time. A snatch of exultant song spilling into the night from a venue, a glimpse of a stylish velvet smoking jacket. I mean the delicious unspent possibilities of The Apple.

There will always be something alluring and romantic in the person that you don’t quite know yet, in the possibility of the chance encounter just around the next corner. That scrumptious imaginary person is unfailingly attractive, they are only ever there when you want to talk to them, they never need your attention when you’re tired and grumpy, you don’t squabble over stupid things, everything you say to them is brilliant and everything they say to you is tender. It is hard to let go of the attractive stranger. But then, that person never really belongs to you anyway.