Looking for Love. Online

User Experience and online dating 

A recent study from the University of Chicago contends that more than a third of those who married in the US between 2005 and 2012 met online.  Match.com says one in four relationships now starts on the web.  And according to eHarmony the relationships that started on their site last longer.and have a much lower divorce rate than the national average. It seems that online dating is not only the norm nowadays, it could just be the way to go.

And its big business. One report estimated that globally the industry is now worth more than   £2 billion pounds

And  as someone who is interested in human behavior and how technology can enhance our lives; it would seem that online dating offers the perfect match between human needs and technical advancement.  And what a great use of technology, making it easier for people to connect with each other.   It would appear the potential for this  industry to flourish is endless.   However online dating is not without  heartaches of its own in the form of recent scandals and intense competition.

broken heart


Online dating firms have faced a barrage of negative publicity  in recent years and have been accused of skulduggery in many forms such as of selling off on-line profiles, fake flirting and conducting experiments on unsuspecting users, to name but a few.

The need for dating firms to build a good reputation and a brand that users can trust is now more essential than ever.

And competition online these days is fierce.  There seems to be a plethora of dating sites out there catering for anything from Theatre lovers to  My little pony aficionados who want to find their ‘brony mate‘.

Exponential growth in the web brings with it,   its own trials too in form of indirect competition from platforms such as Facebook and Meetup who provide opportunity and in many cases, free, alternatives to meeting a partner online.

The challenge for those in the dating industry  now is to create products and experiences that add value in some way.  That offer something above and beyond the rest.  Something that makes their product stand out from crowd.

2 pl;us 2

Some of the firms I think  have been very successful in carving their niche in the market in the last couple of years are companies like eHarmony with their matching algorithms,  Grindr and Blendr with their use of mobile and location based services  and Tinder and their use Facebook data, to name but a few.

Other dating firms  are hot on their heels and employing strategies such as:

  • Merging online and offline experiences;  Crossing over from offering an online dating service only to include offline events such as themed dating events and real life matchmakers etc.
  • Creating better experiences across multiple platforms:  Predictions are by 2018, more than 80% of the population will own a smartphone.  This has an impact on how users engage with services and dating firms have to look at how to best optimize their product across different devices.
  • Creating compelling ‘sticky’ user experiences. Naturally.  In such a competitive market, the firms who create user- centred services that customers actually enjoy engaging with,  are bound to be the most successful ones.

These are useful strategies to keep up with competition but are they enough to stay ahead of the curve.  Enough to survive? 

The Innovators Dilemma 

In an industry with such low barriers to entry (you don’t even need your own database these days) I believe the biggest challenge to online dating firms is falling foul of what Clayton Christensen called the  ‘Innovators Dilemma ‘~ when new technology causes great firms to fail.    Firms don’t fail because they do something wrong.  They fail because they stand still.   And new ideas and new technologies come along and take their business away.

Enter User Insights .  User insights and design research are not just essential in creating superior customer experiences but also in driving innovation.

picture of heart

It is only by truly understanding our customers’ needs and motivations and how our product fits (or doesn’t fit in) into their lives can we come up with the ideas for new, better products and services.  And it is only by fostering a culture of experimentation and continuos  research and testing can we create experiences that connect people in more meaningful and ultimately more successful ways.



So you think Facebook were out of order with their experiment on emotions?

700,000 people were involved in Facebook research during 2012. They knew nothing about it.

FB logo

There was a Furore a couple weeks ago when Facebook revealed the results of an experiment they had conducted on Facebook users in 2012.   They were undertaking research on Emotional Contagion in online and social settings.  Paper here.  We already know emotions are contagious and when you meet someone who is happy or sad you can’t but help be affected by their mood. Facebook wanted to know if the same thing happened through interaction in online social networks. To test this they altered the number of positive and negative words in posts people saw in their News Feed and tracked how this affected that user’s subsequent posts and updates.

Did it impact their mood?

Facebook found that the more positive posts people saw they were more likely to share more positive updates. Likewise if exposed to negative posts users were more likely to share less positive updates. Facebook contends their findings show that emotions in social networks are contagious too.

So whats the problem?

  • 700,000 people’s news feed where involved in this research during 2012 and they knew nothing about it. Facebook say that when you sign up as a user to their data use policy and terms of service, you agree to such experiments. But how many realised they were signing up to this? Can you really say this was informed consent? At the very least, hiding those permissions behind tick boxes in sign up form that Facebook know people do not read could be construed as a use of dark pattern design.
  • And what about Privacy issues? Altering peoples posts and tracking their subsequent posts surely breaks all privacy rules. Not, according to Facebook,  if you don’t use humans to track or read data. During this experiment Facebook used language analysis and automated tools to track positive and negative words and terms during this research.
  • It is because of those automated tools that many think this research was flawed.  The contention being that algorithms are incapable of correctly interpreting human emotions and that emotions are more that just words. Interpretation is often more dependent on content or tone  E.g how would “I am not having a great day” How would an algorithm  interpret that?   Negative or Positive because of ‘great and ‘day’?   It is unclear.

Right or Wrong?

Facebook did later apologise for any anxiety this experiment caused.  Adam Kramer, lead researcher posted through Facebook  “I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he said.  “In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.”


ok cupid logo

Facebook say they are sorry, which is not at all case for OK Cupid…

an American dating site, who just this week revealed they have been running a series of experiments on unsuspecting users of their website. Co-Founder Christian Rudder published the results in his blog entitled ‘We Experiment with Human beings! ’

These experiments involved Ok Cupid altering the data in user’s profiles to see what impact it had on the engagement between users.

“Love is Blind or should be”

The first experiment found that temporarily removing the photo from someone’s profile made for better and according to Rudder ‘more deeper’ conversations between users.  However when they restored the photos many of these conversations stopped.

“Your actual words are worth… almost nothing” 

OkCupid next undertook an A/B test where in some profiles they hide text (and left photo) and in others left the text and the photo. Results showed the lack of text had little impact on traffic between customers. Photos are what matter.

“when we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other.”

In another experiment OKcupid set up matches between pairs of users that were not, according to OkCupids own formulas , compatible.   But they told these users they were “exceptionally good” for each other, or 90% matches. Naturally users then sent more messages to their paired match. Interestingly even though the matches should not have got on particularly well,  they did.  The company did reveal the correct scores to users after.

Are we all just Lab rats?

Of course these experiments have sparked more outrage… but was this the point?

On one hand I applaud this research; the tone is loud and proud and if the motivation is to improve a service through testing and research, good on them. On the other hand Rudder is deliberately inflammatory in his tone and methodologies (especially on back of FB research) and looks to be courting publicity which for me, dilutes the research effort.

Also, the acid test here is, did these experiments actually prove anything?  From the love is blind experiment follow up research revealed that “women had a good time more or less regardless of how good-looking their partner was. So what? ~ Was there more hook-ups or potential budding relationships because of this intervention?

“If you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” Christian Rudder

And finally we are back to the thorny issue of informed consent. Should online companies be allowed to do this? What impact does this have on the brand and how customers trust them? And is it even important? This is at the very least a moral question and probably very soon a legal one too.