`if (result has liked user) { put result at top of card stack; }`

Code is logical. Code is practical. Code is so far removed from the volatile jumble of emotions that human beings are — and yet code has kindled millions of romances across the globe: a paradox that begs the question “how did it do it?” However, unlike the traditional experience of meeting through a human intermediary, each of these online services tailor themselves to our specific desires using different user experiences (UX) and code. Not one to forget their analogue predecessors, the team behind Tinder guides its development process by asking: “How do we recreate an encounter at the bar and what can we do to improve it?”

Looks Good, Feels Good

Upon a closer look at their code, Tinder’s semi-moderated firehose approach reveals itself. It panders towards the user’s desire for quick interactions with a lot of people. A function selects the only available preferences: gender, age, and location. Once the user has input the above, the function goes through its list of candidates and displays them as as tack of Polaroids for you to like or dislike by swiping right or left to your heart’s content. This was done so that the user is put in a positive feedback loop as early as possible. When we feel good about something, we’re more likely to do it again. There is very little thinking done in the early stages of this app, just raw physical attraction and a binary decision of “yes” or “no.” This lack of commitment and freedom creates a fairly shallow experience where users are free to mindlessly swipe through the stack and, eventually, get a hit of endorphins – feel good, rinse, and repeat.

The app’s existence seems to be more about building minor interactions; short one to two minute bursts of interactivity. Though this limits Tinder’s appeal to some, this isn’t the app’s problem. In fact, far from it. Falling just short of satiating its users’ desires fully and, in fact, encouraging a varied appetite, Tinder is designed precisely to lack an end-game. It prompts you to “keep playing,” even after you’ve matched with someone. Those who want more commitment out of their dating services should look elsewhere as, Tinder is about immediate gratification.

Romance By Numbers

Let’s take a look at another popular dating service: OKCupid (OKC). OKC is Tinder’s antithesis in almost every way, collecting as much data as possible from their users before showing them their potential matches. Like the matchmakers of old, they ask questions that probe everything from favorite colors to religious beliefs. They gloss over those who they know won’t be compatible, pushing forward the ones they think befit. Like the relationships the platform is trying to foster, it builds up trust by requiring commitment and effort. Presented with a question and then ranking the importance of said question, we tell OKC that our answer is “very important.” Let’s give this answer a value of “5.” If someone else has the same question, answer, and given value, then we are 100% matched. The intricacies of this come out when people give different answers and rank them as different levels of importance. It’s a logical approach to dating; both of you have a lot in common, so you should go out sometime.

Ironically, answering more questions will close doors rather than open them. Instead of leaving it up to the user to refine or curate their options, OKC’s user journey fuels on the trust and faith its users place on the algorithm. Though it’s a proactive journey that apparently banks on accuracy – users essentially control what they get by way of who they say they are – what you get out of the platform remains subjective to your decisions, unlike the primarily circumstantial factors that determine Tinder’s experience.

Choose Your Own Adventure

However clever and anticipatory,  equations aren’t always the best policy. Leaving compatibility entirely up to its audience to decide, Craigslist utilizes only the reach of the digital medium. For two decades, people have been posting ads for everything ranging from used toasters to a date for Saturday night. Its personal section is at once the simplest dating service and the scariest. Because of the freedom given to users in how they articulate themselves, Craigslist has opened up many sub-forums to help users sift through the noise on their own: We can seek any individual or couple on the gender spectrum. No one is going to spoon feed you your match. 

Stripped of code, Craigslist arguably offers the most human experience of all the platforms. There is no dressing up the fact that you are posting an ad for yourself; no guiding interactive prompts, none of the mutual comforts of communal sign-up and participation, no aesthetic or design. But is its free-for-all nature liberating, or are we already lost from the beginning? 

A common thing to say after a break-up is “there are plenty of fish in the sea.” But the reminder of limitless options is hardly soothing. That’s why we resort to apps: its code-enabled restraints make us feel desired by default, because the options we are given by way of common circumstance or interests allows us to feel less alone. Craigslist is almost anarchical in comparison – resonant of an earlier, scarier internet that preceded the friendlier Web 2.0.

How we express our desires almost always lends itself to its product. The varied user experiences we can find in the digital universe undoubtedly reflects in the relationships we witness or participate in. As we rely increasingly on code to seek our matches – by way of who or where we are – could the specificities of our desires disappear? Or does the digital meatmarket serve to tell us what our coupled friends already preach – that you’ll only know who your desired dream mate is once you’re with them? Which user experience you prefer will help decide your ideal application, but ultimately, facilitating personal interactions remains the goal.

the author

Jon Levstein