How dating apps sabotage your chances at finding love through design?

When modern-day instant love meets the reality of game theory.

“Am I unattractive?”
“Why is he/she ghosting?”
“Why am I not getting any matches?“
“What is wrong with me?”

Dating used to be tales that you tell your future grandkids while sitting at the rocking chair. Greasy hair, corny pick up lines, a mixture of self-confidence and shamelessness were the highlights of the story.

Since the rise of the so-called solution for “the fear of rejection”, like Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel (CMB), finding love has not become any easier.

Ghosting, casual hookups, addictive swiping, and the total demolition of self-value are only the tip of the iceberg.

For most of us, the easiest way out is to rationalize with seemingly logical reasons and explanations like “I am not attractive enough for anyone”, or “I’m not good enough”.

Yes, we are always less attractive when we are comparing ourselves to someone else. You might look like an ape compared to Benedict Cumberbatch or Jennifer Aniston when Friends was still on the air. Because we are always harsh on ourselves when we are comparing ourselves to others.

But is it true that your appearance is THE PROBLEM?

No, it’s about the design of the product and how we make decisions.

Here is why.

We became the product of dating, and we ain’t ready

When Tinder and CMB first became available, we were no longer bound by time and physical location whenever we needed a date.

But as a price for convenience and availability: we became the product of dating.

When something is free, we are the product.

Although, we are a product one way or another regardless of our liking. You are the product of our biological parents, and the domain knowledge that you own is a product to your employers/clients.

Yet, being a product isn’t the problem, but the fierce competition and the lack of reward is.

As soon as similar products are being traded in the same confined area, supply and demand are abundant of people, competing against each other fiercely as both the customers and the products. That’s when the concept of the marketplace emerges.

Most of us were expecting to consume rather than compete, and we are not ready for this.

It’s like marketing, but we are f**king bad at it

When you are shopping at Home Depot, would you prefer a drill without packaging, or with a well-presented packaging that addresses your pain points?

We are all impatient consumers who give zero fucks for unattractive products.

Our dating profile is the packaging in this case: the only window to capture attention. Yet, we suck at making an attractive one.

To understand how bad they can be, I’ve collected 349 profiles on CMB in 1 week, and here is what I found:

  1. Average 4.3 photos/profile
  2. Average 19.7 words/profile
  3. Average 7 words for the question “I am…”
  4. Average 6.6 words for the question “I like…”
  5. Average 6 words for the question “I appreciate when my date…”
  6. 12.8% appreciates their date would “make me laugh”
  7. 29.7% likes to travel
  8. 12% likes to hike
Bad dating profile example
it’s just…short…

Click here to see raw data

While each user can upload up to 9 photos, write up to 280 characters for each question in their profile, averaging 56 characters is a sign of underutilization.

However, short isn’t bad, but vague is.

Not only does it not make you stand out from the competition, but it also lacks convincing evidence for others to commit to.

Imagining your date tells you that he/she appreciates their date making them laugh, you’d be hella confused. Should you just tickle them, fake a terrible accent, or just get them some shrooms till they decide to marry you?

Matching is rigged, but our ego says fuck it

If good packaging is the only thing that stands between you and you find the love of your life?

Perhaps not, because of the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).

Tinder app design
Image Source

Here we have Nicole and David.

You can choose “Yes” or “No” when either Nicole or David shows up in your queue.

Since I’m assuming that none of us wants to be on dating apps forever. We need to follow a winning strategy.

Overall strategy on Coffee Meets Bagel
When no option is chosen

If you choose “No”, the chance of matching with them is absolutely 0.

If you choose “Yes”, the chance of matching with them is at least larger than 0.

It is because you will only be matched when both you and the other side choose “Yes”.

Best strategy on Coffee Meets Bagel
The only option with a positive outcome

This is what we call the “Equivalent Outcome” in Game theory, where no one is gaining an advantage over the other player with any available strategies.

But now you might ask, shouldn’t this be the end of the story?

No, because getting more matches does not equal finding the right person for you. It’s like what bad leads do to a business.

Misleading matches forces you to spend time entertaining people who you don’t jive with, which is a huge waste of your time and energy.

You could’ve got the same level of disappointment and frustration by working, at least you get paid for doing so.

Plus, dating apps condemn bot-like behaviors which further diminishes your ROI (highly unlikely that you will be liking everyone in your queue), so don’t try this.

It’s cheaper to ghost

Getting matches doesn’t mean that love is now safe in your pocket.

You getting ghosted is as easy as someone forgetting to pay for their online shopping cart.

Because the cost of switching is low.

There are two types of costs:

  1. Intrinsic cost — like guilt, the fear of missing out, that beautiful illusion of you two getting married before sunset
  2. Extrinsic cost — peer judgment, punishment from the system

Let’s say your match decided to switch over to someone better by ghosting. Here is what is going to happen inside their head:

  1. Saying goodbye felt like saying “you ain’t good enough” into your face, which is awkward
  2. If the fear of rejection is the reason for me to use a dating app, rejecting someone is defeating my original purpose
  3. There’s no punishment for ghosting
  4. No one will judge because no one else will know
  5. Everyone is looking for a better match that attracts them

As such, other than decent courtesy, it’s hard to justify not to ghost.

Would you send an email to Jeff Bezos, telling him that you decided not to proceed with your shopping cart? I rest my case.

At last …

I do not believe for a single second that the Kang sisters created Coffee Meets Bagel because they wanted to sabotage anyone’s chance of finding love.

Nor do I believe that the founders of Tinder had such a terrifying idea when they first came up with this design pattern.

This is a win-win in a less obvious way.

If someone doesn’t care about their presentations, nor value looking for the right match over any matches, it is reasonable to assume that they are not serious at all.

There aren’t any incentives for dating apps to improve their efficiency or effectiveness. Because the sooner you find your keeper, the sooner you become another churn digit on their Tableau dashboard.

Is this a bad thing though? Sounds like it, but not necessary.

Because the real lesson here is: Love roots from attraction, not desperation.

All you need is to start loving yourself.

Love will come when you least expect it.

Shout out to Michelle, Karen, and Daryl who have helped and inspired me to write this piece. Especially Michelle who supports me through ups and downs, and Karen who’s been offering me great writing advices.

Medium publication - UX Collective

This story was featured on UX Collective on the Jun 11, 2021.