Dating Apps: UX Research
Expectations, Motivations, and Experiences of People Who Use Dating Apps
This research study was conducted by a team of four and explored the experience of people looking for long-term romantic relationships using online dating apps. It examined their motivations, engagement, self-presentation and other relationship-seeking techniques and compared those experiences to user expectations.
The study used a grounded theory approach, where no assumptions were made prematurely and no background research on dating apps was conducted prior to the actual study.
In our methods, we used data triangulation to gather and cross-check data from multiple sources in an effort to create a complete picture of human experiences with dating apps. Thus, the following methods were used:
Diary study. Conducted as part of phase 1 of the study, the participants self-reported their experiences interacting with dating apps throughout the day over a 5-day period.
Semi-structured interviews. As part of phase 2 of the study, the participants met with the research team in person and by following interview prompts, were encouraged to reflect on what it is like to use these apps, using the diary entries as a tool to elicit specific anecdotes.
Participatory activities. As part of the in-person meeting, we used two activities to further explore the participants’ preferences and feelings related to their use of dating apps.
I contributed by writing sections of the team’s research planning documents, such as the research plan, interview guide, diary study content, observation plan, and the paper outline. I recruited one of the participants, sent out and collected the diary material, and moderated one interview session, summarizing key findings afterwards. I also participated in the group data analysis exercise, where I individually looked for themes and patterns and coded them accordingly.
Our findings suggested that while participants would prefer to meet romantic partners in person, dating apps were seen as a practical way to expand their pool of options. Being able to quickly sort through potential matches was seen as both efficient and fun, and messaging features allowed users to quickly and easily make contact. Participants did express some concerns about falsified profiles, data security, and physical safety, but developed personal systems to mitigate risk and make the best use of the platforms to meet romantic partners. Further study into user motivations and preferences could lead to an enhanced app experience for the users.
We recruited single residents of Seattle who had been using a dating app for at least one month to seek a romantic relationship. The participants were recruited through social media and personal connections and asked to complete a screener survey to ensure they met the aforementioned project criteria. The participants were compensated with a $10 gift card as an honorarium once they completed the study.
Phase 1: Self-observational diary study
Participants were asked to conduct a self-observational diary study. In the diary study, participants recorded their actions and feelings as they interacted with various dating apps throughout each day for five days in a row. At the end of the study, follow-up interviews were scheduled with the participants.
Phase 2: On-on-one interviews with qualitative questionnaire and activities
Each participant met with the research team individually to complete a qualitative questionnaire and two activities designed to get more insight into user perceptions and behavior around the subject. The facilitator moderated the interview as note-takers and observers recorded the qualitative data in writing.
The qualitative survey, interview data, and diary study data were coded using thematic analysis. Both regular patterns and outlines were given equal consideration when developing hypotheses. The data analysis procedure progressed as follows:
Collected organized data into a Trello board. Digitally inputted any hand written or observed data into a Google Drive repository.
As a group the data was synthesised, labeled and coded using Trello. Shared themes were identified by the group and ranked in order of frequency.
The recurring themes and patterns were reviewed to ensure they helped answer the research question.
1. Motivations and Current Use
There are two primary motivations for why people use dating apps. While the common sentiment is that dating apps are not people’s first choice for finding a relationship (they would rather meet their romantic partner in real life), their major motivation comes out of that very difficulty. Meeting people in person can be difficult due to a busy schedule, infrequent social opportunities, or unlikelihood of meeting a partner of the same orientation (e.g., gay) through a regular social scenario. The other motivation is curiosity arising out of interest as to why these apps are so popular, and, of course, the possibility of meeting a lifelong partner.
The second motivation extends to the theme of “fun” we have uncovered. Most of our participants describe their app experience as “fun”: some like the process of browsing profiles, getting a sense of satisfaction after they have completed it, while others enjoy getting matches, which boosts their self-esteem. In both cases, people use dating apps without serious intention and most likely when they are bored. Since these apps are for the most part fun and easy to use, people continue engaging with them in hopes of finding their ideal match, even if that means sacrificing their privacy/security concerns and time meeting with less-than-ideal candidates.
2. Current Experience: Delights, Disappointments and Unmet Needs
Participants expressed they enjoy the ability to quickly swipe and browse the profile pictures and captions efficiently as they search for people they are interested in. They also enjoy reading profiles that describe who that person is, his or her lifestyle and personal characteristics. Even though they are looking for serious relationships, they like the casual format of the dating apps as it enables them to get dates without requiring too much time and effort. Receiving the match recommendations based on their browsing preferences gives them more opportunities to develop relationships. Moreover, they like the messaging function in the dating apps, which allows them to communicate with the person they are matched with before committing to a date.
Misrepresented or fake profiles are one of the major frustrations in the experience of using dating apps. In some profiles, users misrepresent themselves with out-of-date photos or dishonest information. In such cases, the variance between the expectations and the real person can result in huge first date disappointments. Another major frustration is match inaccuracy. Although the users are happy with the quantity of match recommendations, they are more concerned whether the person actually matches their preferences or not. They expected the dating app to provide more accurate matches based on location, interests and lifestyle.
Participants also expected more ways to verify the identity of the person in hopes of reducing the chances of a profile mismatch. For example, if social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are connected to a match recommendation, users could learn more about each other’s real and current activities since many people are regularly contributing to their Facebook profiles, e.g. uploading selfies from Instagram, favorite meals, and music and film interests. Also, social media can provide chronological information so users know what happened to the person and when. Moreover, information from social media is more trustworthy than that of a dating profile, which might be embellished or out of date.
Participants expressed they wanted the dating app to show profiles and recommend matches based on their friends’ social circle. The idea is that if the potential date is a friend of a friend they are more willing to date them because their lifestyle and personal interests might be a better match. Additionally, users wished to broaden their circles by getting to know more single people who are already a friend of a friend.
Because messaging is the only channel through which users can communicate with a potential date, users want the feature to be as expressive as possible in the hopes they can learn more about the recommended match while colorfully expressing themselves.
3. Personalized Dating Systems
Data from the study revealed an emerging theme related to personalized dating systems. These systems were developed independently by the users to increase the effectiveness of their online dating experience. Participant M. expressed that he discovered a pattern of success when using the dating app, Tinder. Participant M. observed that out of 50 introductions sent, 10 would become active conversations. Of those 10, about 4 would be in person dates and 2 of those successful matches. He called it the 50-10-2 rule. Additionally, M. explained he logged prospective matches into an Excel file while noting the frequency of communications of prospective matches. He used this data to determine which profiles were most communicative and likely to be a match.
Participant G. assembled pre-composed conversations, e.g. opening lines and sentences designed to keep the conversation going, in a unique document. Participant G. would copy and paste the information from this document when appropriate to potential matches.
There were other common personalized dating systems that were shared amongst all of the participants. Namely, all the participants pinpointed the need to post an attractive profile photo, images and information to capture the different aspects of their life, and a bio with information interesting enough to start a conversation.
4. Safety and Privacy
Both physical and digital security concerns were expressed throughout the interviews, but neither factor deterred participants from using their preferred dating apps. Instead, they developed various behavioral strategies and justifications to minimize the perceived risks.
One key consideration was unwanted contact. Several participants reacted positively to the Tinder feature that only allows messages to be sent when there is mutual interest. Participant J. appreciated the ability to revoke contact, noting, “What’s pretty good is you can unmatch the person you don’t like if you have already liked them and they like you back.”
Participants felt most secure when they could find out as much as possible about their prospective dates. It was common for participants to look up their matches on social media and do online searches before meeting in person. Being able to see mutual connections on social media was also seen as an asset. On the other hand, other users having the same level of access occasionally proved to be a hazard. Participant S. recalled a match who used her middle name in conversation after finding the information in a Google search, which caused her to lock down the privacy settings on her online accounts and minimize her searchable information. However, one participant, J., was comparatively indifferent, stating, “I don’t really care. I just don’t share any things that I don’t want others to see.”
Meeting in person had its own set of challenges. Participants mentioned that they would only arrange first meetings in public places. Participant S. took the additional precaution of always driving her own car and informing friends or family about upcoming dates. But even after she recounted a 2016 case where a Renton man killed and dismembered his Tinder date, Participant S. did not express any urge to avoid online dating. “That could happen with in-person dating, too.” Participant M. was pessimistic, but similarly unperturbed. “I think anyone could possibly be a murderer,” he said.
Participant M., our only participant seeking same-sex partners, had the additional concern of health status disclosure. “For the gay community it would be nice if you could verify that they are testing. There is no other way to know if somebody is HIV positive except for what they say.”
The study is not influenced by any previous research findings. The literature review was conducted post-factum and is thus an invaluable tool for cross-comparison and revealing this study’s unique value.