Playing Cupid: The World of Digital Dating Apps & Experiences
As a branding and experience design consultancy, we look to explore how digital shapes, influences and enhances our lives across all sectors - satisfying human needs and ever-changing behaviours.
Typically, we dive into the art of hospitality, the flux of retail and the innovation-filled property sector where successful ‘conversion’ results in a booking, order confirmation or signed contract. But this month, we wanted to explore something a little different, yet just as defining of society today.
In a world of Tinder and Hinges, many of us have come accustomed to swiping away in the pursuit of love.
In fact, 323 million people worldwide are reported to use dating apps. The online dating market is an ever-growing and evolving phenomenon, projected to reach over $6 billion by 2027.
Modern love lives have been totally transformed by online dating, for better and for worse. Now introductions are made behind a screen, profiles are curated to perfection and the odds of success are a numbers game. Romantic right?
Dating en masse has been enabled, with it easier than ever before to connect with a stranger, doing it from the comfort of our own homes behind the shield of a screen.
As a result, we’ve heard it all - from ‘Tinderella’ fairytales which all started with a ‘like’ to nightmare stories of catfishing, ghosting, breadcrumbing and bench warming - the list goes on.
With over 10 years of swiping left, swiping right, deleting and re-downloading various apps in the pursuit of finding ‘the one’ - I felt compelled to write this article. Perhaps for cathartic purposes but also because there's a real opportunity to make a difference within the digital dating world. And turn the ‘norm’ on its head - creating experiences that encourage and enhance human connection. Not hinder them.
The Digital Dating Landscape
Since the 1990s, traditional dating has been totally disrupted by technology.
Back in 2017, Stanford University conducted a survey on heterosexual couples, which showed the drastic change in how couples met - citing online dating’s meteoric rise from just 2% in 1995 to 39% in just over 20 years. Telling, however, massively reductive by only focusing on heterosexual relationships.
In the years since, mobile usage has continued to soar and Covid-induced lockdown confined us to dating from our bedrooms - it’s fair to predict the proportion will have significantly increased.
This surge has also reflected a more liberal society when it comes to sex, relationships, marriage and cohabitation.
With apps catering to different identities and sexual orientations, online platforms have provided a space to “connect, explore identity, and establish community in relative anonymity and safety, away from offline persecution and discrimination” for those previously marginalised.
In 2020, Pew Research reported that sexual minorities are roughly twice as likely to date online compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
As indicated by the burgeoning market size, dating apps have seen continued uptake and commercial success in recent years even despite the cost of living crisis. The Match Group (owners of Hinge & OKCupid) reported that sales rose to $810m (£704m) and Tinder paid subscriptions increased by 7% in the Q3 2022.
According to dating app Badoo, millennials average an astonishing 10 hours every week on dating apps. Yet, 45% of people who have used a dating site or app in the past year say they experience left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%).
Despite frustrations, finding love remains a priority - an investment worthy of time and hard-earned cash for the many.
Swiping Right - The Tinder Takeover
In 2012, Hatch Labs founded Tinder - a revolutionary app aiming to connect individuals based on geographic proximity and physical attraction through user-generated profiles and introducing the addictive ‘swipe right’ to like, ‘swipe left’ to pass to thousands of hopeful daters. First launched on college campuses in the US, alike to Facebook, by the end of 2014 Tinder was registering 1 Billion swipes a day all over the world.
Online dating, which once seemed ‘cringe’ and a last-chance saloon for single individuals, had been turned on its head. With a far younger user base than the likes of Match.com and eHarmony, Tinder helped to ease the taboo and hesitation around meeting people online.
Whilst initially popular as a novelty, Tinder has now become increasingly synonymous with how you ‘get yourself out there’ to meet new people, connect and date.
The app offered speed, volume and vanity; injecting users with satisfying dopamine hits to satiate our constant need for stimulation and leaning into the gamification of dating for generations increasingly lacking in attention span. Tinder's addictive algorithm and simplicity led to high usage but, over time, gained a terrible reputation: a quick meet-up app for the unserious, and uncommitted daters.
Since then, many apps have followed in Tinder’s footsteps; recognising its pitfalls and opportunities to create a more ‘rewarding’ experience.
Take Hinge. The generally more respected dating app which gained popularity in 2017.
Despite initial hype, the experience essentially remained the same. Swipe right. Potentially match. And chat at your own discretion. With small adaptations like an additional content module here and there…
And it only gets more depressing when you see the same profiles time and time again across the various apps. “I think we’ve been here before [insert name]...”
Premium Products for Premium Clientele
As ever, when a new market unfolds, there is always an appetite for a premium experience. Those ready and willing to pay for better.
Whilst many of the apps previously mentioned now have their ‘Tinder Plus’ and ‘HingeX’ where users can pay a monthly subscription for enhanced features, platforms have been born out of a want for a more exclusive offering, be that in clientele or the services included.
After much speculation and mystery, I was finally invited to join the Raya community by a friend in July. I had heard a lot about the app, where the likes of Matthew Perry, Simone Biles, Niall Horan and Lizzo have all been spotted, screenshots were subsequently banned, discretion expected and supposedly, standards of clientele high.
“Our focus at Raya is to provide members with access to exciting people and opportunities around the world. We are a private community where people come to connect for dating, networking, and friendship.”
I was so ready to try something new and gain access to this invitation-only, membership app - which supposedly only accepts 8% of applicants. Immediately, I found myself curating the idealised profile to submit for review by their ‘community guardians’ - eagerly waiting acceptance.
To my delight, my profile was accepted and I soon found myself entering my bank details to pay a monthly subscription for access. The first time I had ever paid for a dating service.
To keep the community ‘tight knit’ and value connection, Raya provides you with limited potential matches a day from all over the world. The calibre of members were admittedly high - an elite group of individuals who seemed to have it all - successful careers, jet-set lifestyles and hauntingly-perfect Hollywood smiles.
It was exciting.
However, within a few days (and admittedly, an abysmal amount of matches) I realised the experience I was paying for was no different than the free-to-use apps. With all the same pitfalls, disappointments and lack-of-human-connection. Despite paying for the app, individuals were no more likely to drop the first message or even respond to conversation starters. And personally, jetting around the world for a first date to meet with someone based in LA wasn’t particularly realistic. I would rather stick to a London based postcode remit…
Arguably, the limited matches per day actually missed the benefit of the mass-scale introductions which the others boasted.
Romantic Tragedy: The Pitfalls of Digital Dating
A wise man said ‘all is fair in love and war’, but I can’t help but think that these same-but-slightly-different apps have made the battle of finding love that much more painful.
Considering the likelihood of meeting someone at a bar or through work is below 10%, we don’t have much choice. So if you opt out of online dating, you simply aren’t putting yourself out there. Leaving those longing-for-love in a Catch-22.
Yet many of these apps are the epitome of what’s widely criticised about digital – a sea of sameness, lack of healthy friction and ultimately, ‘swipers’ remorse. And more often than not, they lead to the exact opposite of what people are looking for.
Very few dating apps have truly innovated, by returning to the drawing board and rethinking, genuinely considering the needs and wants of the user. As the brilliant innovation thought leader Tom Goodwin would say: ‘We are built on limitations of the past’.
Save The Date
So for brands and individuals looking for a different approach to facilitating ‘love’ and human connection digitally, let's shine a light on apps and experiences who are changing the game.
The dating game.
The Sauce - The Tiktok of Dating
Looking to inject a bit more personality into the ever-boring 5 photo/3 prompt profiles, The Sauce is a video-only app that helps to bring individuals to life. The platform is a celebration of being your most authentic self — capturing the essence of you in full colour.
“Because you're more than a photo.
We're here to let you show your energy, your voice, your moves, your friends. It’s the combination of these that make you, you.”
Already, creating great opportunities for conversation starters. The refreshingly different profile jars users into attention, and creates a far more engaged audience - who often will watch the videos for enjoyment as opposed to quickly scrolling past a static image on the basis of initial attraction.
In a world where Instagram Stories and Video Content reigns supreme, it’s a great example of an app where they have considered what users really want. A dating app more comparable to TikTok or a social feed, than Facebook…
Iris: AI-Powered Matchmaking App
Iris have looked to reinvent online dating through artificial intelligence for individuals serious about dating, but don’t have the time for endless scrolling. Iris does the work so you don’t have to. Great.
The more time a user spends on the platform, providing data on preferences, likes and dislikes, the more the machine learns. In turn, AI-driven algorithm improves and the experience becomes more personalised. Over time, Iris will put forward increasingly accurate matches based on attraction and compatibility, coupling data from both sides. Less disappointment, more matches.
With apps like Tinder, Hinge & Bumble, individuals repeat the same process again and again to (likely) no reward and little ability to filter other than basic demographics. Through AI, Iris is able to remedy the endless, hopeless scroll — a use case for machine learning I think we can all get onboard with…
Genuine product personalisation helps a user feel valued, heard and understood — creating loyalty to the app whilst also driving more successful outcomes. As a result, when individuals do find a ‘match’ they are more inclined to invest time into chatting, and discovering more.
ToDate - Same Day Dating
Many of us will have heard of Thursday, the 24-hour dating app that took social media by storm. Whilst a novel idea, the reality of individuals fitting their ‘dating’ lives into one day a week whilst working for 8 hours of it - is pretty unlikely.
ToDate combats this, users can take control of their diaries no matter what day of the week and find dates at times that suit them.
Individuals select the activities they are up for doing that day - be that a dog walk, a coffee, a museum visit or drinks - and a 3 hour window which works for them. Once completed, users will see potential matches who have selected at least one of the activities they are interested in and fit the search criteria.
Digital beautifully connects the dots, whilst immediately leading to fruitful opportunities to date. The community is full of people with the same dating intentions, to get out there and meet new people - not just chat behind a screen for days on end. Reaping far more rewards.
Fitafy: The Fitness Dating App
Fitafy focuses on fitness fanatics. Individuals who are looking to share their active lifestyles with a partner just as passionate. Fitafy hopes to create ‘healthy’ relationships in both senses of the word, and to encourage ‘active’ dating. Also, satisfying an increasing demand for dating in a healthier, more sustainable way - that doesn’t involve drinking.
On profiles, individuals share their health goals, fitness interests and diet choices - be that London Marathon training or adventure trekking. Users can integrate their Apple Health stats to create friendly competition with their matches or show off their latest sporting achievements. (For some, I’m sure this would be massively motivating - admittedly, exposing my daily step count to potential matches would be my worst nightmare.)
By dialling into passions and interests, Fitafy are able to create meaningful connections with more ground than physical attraction, and immediate conversation starters that matter.
Power Of Music
In a similar vein, Power of Music (POM) looks to connect individuals with similar music tastes - by pulling data from your Spotify or Apple Music accounts on your favourite artists, playlists and songs. POM was founded on the basis of music being an incredibly powerful way to connect with others and bond.
Is your worst nightmare ending up on a date with a ‘Swifty’? Or are you looking for a fellow technohead? For many, music taste is the be all and end all - POM recognises this and avoids the risk of disappointment from the onset.
The app also hosts exclusive in-person events at live music venues such as Nightales & Soho House - creating opportunities for melomanics to meet and greet each other.
Whilst all app creators should be weary in the post facebook era of ‘data’, music libraries are widely shared and individually celebrated. Our Spotify annual wrap-ups are an extension of oneself, and often a badge of honour. It’s particularly clever to use readily available information to help authentically ‘match’ individuals without the need for overly-preened profiles.
Victoria, The App
Operating like an exclusive members club, Victoria focuses on enabling like-minded individuals to match online and meet through members-only, private experiences in person - enjoying common interests together in safe, but undeniably stylish settings.
Victoria’s branding and aesthetic are more akin to a lifestyle brand, its allure and mystique are strong. The app design is a far cry from the likes of more jovial Tinder & Bumble, suggesting elegance and sophistication. For individuals who want their dating life to be as refined as them.
Members are carefully selected by an esteemed panel, ensuring all encompass Victoria’s shared values and lust for life. Its mantra attracts individuals who are ready to date in person, not to be left on read - creating an ever-evolving, trusted community. A recipe for success.
“If Soho House made dating apps…” Evening Standard.
Whilst the app is at the heart of facilitating initial connections based on profiles and shared interests, Victoria encourages human-to-human connection - embracing the moment. Individuals are looking for brands with values that reflect their goals - Victoria embodies that for the discerning client.
Keeping in mind our lineup of more interesting and original takes on digital dating, we’ve outlined our recommendations for designing digital experiences that cultivate human connection.
Harness the power of community. Target like-minded individuals with complimentary dating intentions. Communicate your values, set boundaries and lay the foundations for respect. Focus on honing a safe space online for individuals to explore and connect with singles that stand a genuine chance of success.
We’re done with swiping. Create interfaces that are surprising, delightful and different. By jarring users into attention, and defying the norms, brands can carve out a place in the mind instead of meekly creating another copycat app with a slightly-altered tagline. People are willing to invest in dating apps, so make one worth paying for.
Reward users for investing their time in your brand. Create ever-evolving algorithms that genuinely work in their favour, not trap them, by recognising their preferences and what determines their attraction levels on an individual basis. The data’s there, use it or someone else will.
Don’t be afraid to put content between users and conversion to create more valued connections. The ease of swiping has led to little care and emotional investment — instant gratification is denying users long-term satisfaction. Make them work for the right match.
The best technology enables better human-to-human interaction, whether it’s behind the scenes, as a tool or a communication channel. With dating, brands that facilitate opportunities to connect offline (exclusive events, speed dating, The Holiday-esque activations) in relevant, playful ways will not only capture members’ minds and hearts but also the value of their recommendations
Love Conquers All
For all my moaning, barely a day goes by where I don’t find myself swiping left, left, left with the rare but momentous right. And my hope remains, that with enough persistence and positivity, I may also find success on dating apps.
But I think many of us fed-up-singletons would appreciate a romantic hero to save us. So this is my call to arms for innovators, dating brands and app creators alike to harness the best parts of our society-wide default to digital and craft experiences that, in the end, help us fall in love with dating again.
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