After years of consciously avoiding the online dating game, I recently joined Tinder – mostly out of academic curiosity. I’d read a lot about how online dating works but most opinions don’t survive first contact with reality. This turned out to be partly true in my case.
This post is a mix of things I’ve learnt about product management and online dating through my limited experience on the app and some reading. Let’s begin.
Disclaimer: The dynamics of online dating discussed here are those that operate in India. I’m positive this won’t be the same for other countries owing to differences in cultural and societal attitudes towards dating.
Characterizing the Dating Market
From my understanding of markets and observations from Tinder, I think of the dating market as a highly inefficient market, one that sucks at allocation. This is a good thing, for Tinder. An inefficient market is one where the price of an asset does not accurately reflect its true value. You could argue that it’s better than having no marketplace at all but when you have marketplaces as commonplace as Tinder or Facebook they begin to affect societal attitudes which is not ideal.
This is how the market allocation on Tinder looks like from my understanding. The matches follow a power law for men and a skewed normal distribution for women.
This is not mere speculation and analysis of data from OkCupid also shows a similar trend. You can find the analysis here.
While revisiting the draft and doing some research I came across a paper on Tinder user activity which confirms that this is indeed the case (how to read this graph – e.g. 20% of male participants had a match rate of 6-10%; 30% of female participants had a match rate of 81-90%). You can find the paper here. https://arxiv.org/pdf/1607.01952.pdf
Why does the market look like it does and what are the ramifications?
The market characteristics are driven primarily by the swiping strategy men use on Tinder. The most common strategy employed by men is that of casual, sometimes indiscriminate swiping. This means that women are inundated with matches. Women, consequently, are picky about swiping right and choose carefully. Although a high-level abstraction, this behavior explains why almost all women get a good number of likes whereas most men don’t get any.
Note here that this system has a positive feedback loop, which makes the inequality worse. Consider your average man on Tinder who is unable to find matches. What is the easiest way to increase matches? Swipe more. This leads to women getting even more matches and induces higher selectivity. Overall, this leads to a poor experience for all users on the platform. It is not uncommon to hear of women being harassed on Tinder which obviously sucks but it is a by-product of Tinder’s design.
This built-in inequality of Tinder likes gives rise to a lot of interesting things:
- Arbitrage opportunity for Tinder and striving for a more efficient marketplace (More on this in the next section on Product)
- By tweaking system design we come up with alternative marketplaces like Bumble where women are given control over swiping strategy (new rules to avoid this particular manifestation of system behavior)
Notes on Product
Tinder’s incentive lies in exacerbating this natural inequality of matches as much as they can (promoting organic behavior) and then introduce workarounds (premium features) to reduce it. This makes for a killer money-making app. ($USD 800 million in revenues this year for Tinder alone)
How does this manifest itself in the app?
Nudging organic/default behavior – If you look at the UI of tinder you’ll notice the subtle push at swiping more and swiping quickly.
- Tinder wants people to swipe quickly and finish their daily quota of swipes. To enable this, they’ve added a small but powerful design feature that encourages indiscriminate swiping. It’s the ‘view bio’ button – it’s made really small and it lies in a corner of the app.
- In the first, image only mode you can swipe the card left or right. Once you click the bio button, you can only use the icons to swipe right or left. These are incredibly small design features but have significant impact on the user experience.
- Once you’ve chosen the appropriate icon to swipe left or right from bio mode you are sent back to the default card only mode which tends to shape user behavior such that you move towards indiscriminate swiping. (Note: I use the term indiscriminate swiping to indicate behavior where you don’t read the bio)
Premium features as a workaround – A multitude of features exist at all price points to entice users into buying them and fixing the match inequality. I’ll briefly touch upon a few.
- Unlimited swipes – Swiping faster means you eventually hit the daily limit. You can buy more swipes to increase the number of probable matches but as we’ve seen this doesn’t work very well.
- Super likes – Stand out from the crowd. Since women are flooded with likes (I’ve seen almost all my friends having 99+ matches at which point it becomes tedious to even bother looking at them) a super like has higher visibility because it has a different queue.
- Boost – Tinder doesn’t show your profile to everyone you swipe right on. There’s a little more complexity involved here because tinder keeps an ELO score that determines who your profile gets shown to. You can boost your profile to bypass this filter temporarily and have a shot at profiles that are out of your league (as determined by Tinder’s ELO score).
- Undo swipe – Swiping indiscriminately often means you have false negatives you want to correct (missing out on good profiles feels like a loss) which can be done by buying tinder gold and having the ability to undo your swipe.
- Tinder gold for changing location – Once you’ve exhausted the people around you (I’ve heard of this happening in relatively smaller cities) you can swipe on profiles in other locations using tinder gold.
All these features are aimed at either increasing the potential pool of matches or pushing back against the high selectivity factor induced by indiscriminate swiping.
Notes on system design and new marketplaces
The Tinder marketplace dynamic is a characteristic of their system design – swiping based on images, allowing everyone to swipe, not showing everyone all profiles, etc. and so is their strategy (of creating inequality and bringing in tools to fix it). The way to create an efficient marketplace is not to have more features (feedback loops are too strong) but to change the system design. And that’s exactly what other people did.
- Bumble – Given that most men seem to swipe indiscriminately, Bumble was introduced to shift the dominant strategy of selection from mass swiping to selective swiping by giving the choice to women. Only women can initiate conversations on Bumble and if they don’t do so within 24 hours of matching the match disappears. Since this system is not ideal, Bumble has premium features for men to send super likes and increase the 24-hour window in the hope of getting a response. Bumble would also make for an interesting case study, but I don’t understand the system as much. Fun fact: Bumble is the only dating app not owned by the conglomerate Match.com (which owns Tinder, Match, PlentyOfFish, OkCupid and now Hinge) and was started by an ex-Tinder employee.
- Hinge – This started off as a marketplace where connections were made only via mutual friends on Facebook. Hinge now has pivoted to a profile based matching system and is owned by Match.com. Hinge lies somewhere between Tinder and OkCupid in terms of the criterion for matching. Tinder focuses exclusively on photos, Hinge uses a mix of photos and questions whereas OkCupid uses a full questionnaire to show match percentages. Match.com truly owns the dating market and has a solid diversification strategy.
- OkCupid – Users on this app are required to answer a lot of questions (in different categories) and matches are made using an algorithm that maps user tastes. The system design here focuses on fewer but higher quality matches.
I think my time on Tinder has been worthwhile given that I’ve managed to write a 1500 word essay on it. I also managed to meet some really cool people I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Do you have any Tinder insights? Feel free to share them as comments or message me directly. Happy tindering!