As more and more of our interactions move online, we will continue to build and foster social connections digitally. Today, it is clear that romantic relationships are no exception. Even prior to the pandemic, about one in three US adults said they had used a dating site or app (Pew Research) and the pandemic largely did not change people’s desire to enter relationships (Pew Research).
$7.5b market, ripe for innovation: While the number of users has doubled over the past 5 years, the online dating industry has largely stagnated in innovation since Tinder came on the scene 10 years ago (Earth Web). This has had a strong negative impact on users. Nearly 80% of US adults aged 18-54 experienced some degree of emotional fatigue or burnout from online dating. Adults aged 25-34 are the most likely group of users to experience this (Global Newswire). The process of online dating is not only exhausting, but also costly. A study done by dating app, Badoo, found that, on average, single people are going on six failed dates per year and spending over $300 a year on bad dates (The Independent).
Despite this clear dissatisfaction with the state of dating sites and apps today, there is optimism around online dating as a foundation for fostering healthy romantic relationships. More than half of Americans (54%) say relationships that begin on a dating site or app are just as successful as those that begin in person.
Gamers make up ~40% of the global population (DataProt). We maintain that introducing game mechanics to non-gaming related industries has the potential to increase engagement and monetization. Dating applications are the perfect candidate for disruption.
The user experience for current dating apps follows the same flow - sign up, discover and match, get to know one another, then move off the dating app - and the feature sets across even the most popular dating apps are quite stale. Even the niche dating apps like Stir, BLK, Happn, Her, eHarmony, and Grindr are only successful because they cater to specific demographics (interests, sexual orientation, race, religion, etc) - they follow the same user process flow.
In short, there is close to zero differentiation amongst these products, and demographic focus only comes from marketing to their targeted user base.
First and foremost, we believe that the developer goals of an outcome-driven result (a relationship) need to be expanded. Regardless of whether your users leave your app to start life-long relationships or stay and continue to search for “the one”, the user experience needs to be truly enjoyable and fun to repeat again and again. As of right now, four out of five adults think it is not enjoyable or fun but rather draining and exhausting. This is not a fault of the digital medium by which people connect (people happily text / email / call / Facetime all the time) but of the dating apps themselves who have built bad products in a vacuum.
User retention and engagement techniques should mimic gaming best practices: Today, dating apps fall incredibly short on the feature set they offer. The most popular dating app, Tinder, is known for the game-like experience of the swipe matching process and the rewarding feeling users get from “matching” with someone. However, these features decline in value to the user over time and leave the user without any additional features to facilitate a connection. As we have seen in simulation games, massive multiplayer online games (MMOs), and virtual training, game mechanics can be a way to simulate and work through real-world situations and conversations. Getting to shared interests, non-negotiables, and ultimately go/no-go decisions in a non-text message based environment can be faster, more time and cost efficient, and fun.
Dating apps should foster genuine human connection: In LimeLight Networks’s State of Online Gaming Report 2021, 53% of gamers surveyed say that they’ve made new friends through online games in the past year and the average American gamer has made 5 new online friendships through playing video games over the last 18 months (StudyFinds). Over the past year, we have even begun to see events like weddings happen in virtual environments (Brides). Dating apps sit at a unique intersection of human connection, yet they fall incredibly short in their ability to foster genuine human relationships. In comparison, gaming has done this exceptionally well.
Fun is viral yet dating apps are far from fun: When Badoo expanded to Facebook back in late-2010, usage instantly surged. The idea behind the Badoo app is that you can casually chat with interested people nearby backed by the identity verification of a Facebook profile. Interestingly, Badoo saw large user adoption through people playing casual social games and then sharing them with their friends. For dating apps, the inclusion of “having fun” is a wide open landscape for these products to improve upon. The best human relationships (both platonic and romantic) often center around enjoying time together and having fun. Today, dating apps are definitely never described as “fun”.
Too small of a demographic: Apps that cater specifically to gamers encounter the same issue as demographic-focused dating apps - a smaller user market. For example, Nevermet (VR dating app) is limited only to gamers that use VR apps like VRChat, Horizon, and Altspace. While these apps solve demographic-focused dating problems, they do not fundamentally innovate within the dating app market.
Unnecessary friction that may not benefit the user: User loops that are too game-like can be higher effort to use and a actual game may not be the optimal experience for building meaningful relationships. It also may not ultimately be additive to the dating experience. For example, the app XO allows users to play minigames and chat at the same time within the “get to know'' phase, providing some helpful icebreakers. However, these one-size-fits-all games do not allow users to really get to know one another and find common interests or deal breakers in a smooth way, which ends up wasting everyone’s time.
Enabling anonymity and pseudo-identities: one of the main reasons for dating burnout is that online dating can lead people to create two conflicting personas: one that we present in the real world, and one that we present online. This is also a possibility and concern in gaming (especially in VR and MMOs) today, as noted in our piece last year on anonymity and toxicity in games.
Re-define the user path (in real-time): A deeper understanding of user segments will allow dating apps to innovate (along the way) based on the needs of each cohort. This eliminates the need to guess what tradeoffs the user is willing to make. To date, this has been done primarily with boring and static surveys, or positioning the app to appeal to specific demographics. Game-like environments or simulated situations can be fun ways to understand what the user really wants in real-time. Game developers know that players love giving feedback and this should be encouraged as much as possible in refining a user’s path within the app.
Incentivize behavior that improves the health of the app ecosystem: Dating apps today rely too heavily on ties to social media accounts, assuming this connection between physical and digital identity is enough to discourage bad behavior. However, this is not the case. We’d encourage that dating apps look to the best MMOs who have been successful at connecting the importance of one's digital identity and contribution towards a better experience for everyone. Things like a progression feedback system, credit systems that reward and penalize based on user feedback (weighted by their own credit score), and a strong moderation system can all direct behavior towards building a healthy ecosystem. These feature improvements would foster less bad actors and better user experiences, regardless of whether interactions lead to successful matches. Dating apps should also penalize bad behavior; one bad actor can single handedly drive away hundreds of good users (Raph Koster).
Joy as a KPI: The experience on dating apps today is exhausting and demoralizing. People are fatigued, but they are still returning because there is no other option as “in real life” (IRL) options require significantly more time, money, and luck. Dating app developers should focus on ensuring their users have an enjoyable experience in-app, regardless of whether they result in a relationship or not.
Takeaway: The gaming industry has found immense success building incredibly well-designed user experiences (games, worlds, apps) that build genuine human relationships and thriving social connections. It is sad that dating apps today provide such a high volume of angst, frustration, fatigue, and burnout for their users - would it not be better if they were “designed to bring joy” instead?