Behavior is a function of the person and the environment they’re in. People are difficult for product designers to change, but if you can shape the environment and context that they’re making decisions within then you can influence their behavior. It’s a simple equation, and it’s a core foundation of behavioral design.
With this in mind, I’m introducing a series of blog posts called “What’s Appening?” In it, I’ll break down a different app every week to see how the environment created by the design influences your decision-making. This week it’s Tinder, next week it’s a competing dating app that takes a radically different approach.
If you’ve never used Tinder, then you’ve probably just never been single in college. It’s nearly ubiquitous and beautiful in its simplicity. At its core, it shows you profile cards for people around you within a certain range, it asks you to swipe right if you like what you see, left if you don’t, and if there’s mutual attraction you get a match and can message each other.
Why do people use Tinder?
According to a survey of almost 10,000 college students, 4.16% use it while looking for a serious relationship, 44.4% use it for confidence-boosting procrastination, 22.2% use it for hookups, and 29.2% use it for other reasons. 70.8% of millennial users have never actually met up with a match. The app isn’t designed specifically for any of these purposes. It’s just trying to get you addicted, and it does this by making you swipe through as many people as possible. As you get a match here and there, you get an ego boost reward and you’re essentially getting conditioned to keep swiping.
Creating an addiction
When you start using the app initially, it has a seemingly endless amount of people that you can swipe through. It wants you to start getting matches quickly. Eventually, you get one and it feels really good. “They like me too? I must be pretty cute.” The reward here is playing to your ego. You want another, so you keep swiping and it tells you there’s nobody around you, so you wait a little bit and try again. Every once in a while, you get a match and that keeps you coming back and swiping through more and more people.
The core of the app’s addictive nature is created with variable ratio operant conditioning. Every time you swipe right and get a match, you get excited about the possibility they represent and you feel good about yourself, which rewards you for swiping and encourages you to do it some more. However, you recognize that you won’t get a match every time you swipe right, so you don’t get discouraged if you don’t get rewarded right away and you just keep swiping. This is a very effective method for creating a pattern of consistent behavior.
The usefulness of this is strengthened with classical conditioning, where they get you to associate something unrelated to the reward with the reward. In a famous example, Pavlov would ring a bell every time he gave his dogs food. Eventually, they salivated after hearing a bell even with no food coming!
Tinder utilizes the same process to mentally link just seeing people to swipe through with getting matches. After you’ve swiped for a while, Tinder tells you that there’s nobody left around you, but you know that isn’t true. If you open it up again later, you’ll see some more people and, uh, salivate. You haven’t even matched with anyone yet, but you’ve already gotten a kick out of the app.
Habit formation is about creating a loop between a cue (what gets you to think about the app), a routine (opening up the app and swiping), and a reward (getting matches).
Once you’ve opened the app, you’re conditioned to swipe through a few people, covering the routine and reward. Now they just need to create cues to activate the rest of the habit loop. They do this by getting you to think about Tinder as much as they can throughout the day.
Part of it is about sending you push notifications when you get a match or a message. Those spark your curiosity and compel you to open the app. Those only happen occasionally though, not nearly enough.
Another component is the design of the app. As you swipe through more and more people in your area, it’ll stop and tell you that there’s nobody left and to check back later. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes, sometimes it’s hours (variable ratio operant conditioning anyone?) before they show you more people. Due to this you think about and open it frequently.
Tinder can pop up mentally for any number of reasons, but once it does, you do the work for them. Your mind works like an associative network. You connect coffee with cups, dates, and Starbucks. When you think about Apple, coolness, youth, Steve Jobs, and innovation come to mind. When you think about Tinder, you link it with the routine, response, and most importantly, the situation you were in when you thought about it. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, those situations become cues for thinking about Tinder! If that sequence of events repeats itself, the link solidifies.
Check it in the morning to see if you got any matches overnight? When you get home from work or school? Whenever you think about sex? Congratulations, you’ve turned daily situations into cues.
Making snap decisions
Tinder recognizes that getting matches is what keeps you on the app, so it wants to maximize the amount of matches you get. It has an advanced algorithm for showing you to people it thinks you might match with, but people are finicky and not every person you swipe right on is going to swipe right on you. That’s why they play a numbers game, and design the app around getting you to swipe through as many people as they can as quickly as possible.
How do I know this? Well, you can tell a lot about an app by what decisions it gives you, what information it requires you to look at, and what information is optional.
The choice you have to make
Let’s start with the way that they present you options. When you’re deciding how to swipe on a person, you can’t look at other profiles, come back, and decide later. You could think about that hypothetical choice as “Swipe Right,” “Swipe Left,” or “Decide Later,” where “Decide Later” is the default option. People tend to pick the default option when they don’t know what to do.
Tinder, however, removes the default option and forces you to decide on the prospect in front of you. In their eyes, you either like them or you don’t. If you’re conditioned to be on the hunt for matches, you’re incentivized to look at as many people as possible. This means that if you’re indecisive about a potential partner, you’re likely to make a thoughtless (but fast) decision so you can move onto the next one.
The information they want you to consider
On a profile, the only information that you’re required to look at before you make a decision is their first picture taking up the whole screen, their name and age in big text, and their school and job in smaller text. This automatically tells you that they want you to make your decision superficially. They do this because they recognize that if appearance is what you’re mainly focusing on, you’re going to be able to make fast decisions and swipe through a lot of people.
Interestingly, it used to be the case that if you wanted to see other pictures from the user, you had to open up their profile and you’d see their bio, favorite Spotify artists, and Instagram pictures too. Now you can skip their personal info and just tap on the left and right sides of the screen to see all of their pictures.
Tinder could be doing this for a few reasons.
1. They don’t want you to look at personal info because every time you consider all of that it adds to the cognitive load. This makes you stop and think longer about if you want to swipe right or left, lowering the overall quantity of users you swipe on.
2. They believe that people think the bio is unimportant, so they wanted that to be reflected in the app. However, research would suggest that people get more matches if they have a bio.
3. They noticed that many users don’t have bios and the ones that don’t have lower chances of getting matches. Deprioritizing bios in the decision process by making them harder to see would put everyone on a more equal foot.
I suspect that it’s a combination of 1 and 3. They want all users to get as many matches as possible, and if more users don’t have bios than do (or have bios that aren’t helpful in decision making, like “NY →CH” or “UNC 19”), then it would make a lot of sense to level the playing field and increase your rate of swiping.
Why don’t people write bios?
So why don’t people write bios? Well, writing a bio is a cognitively heavy task. Imagine if we rephrased that and said: “Tell me about yourself.” Where do you even start with that? That’s so broad! Do you list out resumé items? Do you say what you’re looking for? Do you write a joke? What joke do you pick and is it original? There’s a lot to think about here, so people will often skip it.
In moments of uncertainty, we generally look for clues as to what the right action to take is. A default option (in this case, writing nothing) hints at what’s acceptable. We also look at what other people similar to us do to see what the correct action is. This is called social proof. However, unless you’re attracted to members of the same gender, you don’t have a reference to understand what other people in your position typically write. This just leaves people confused, and they don’t write anything.
If they wanted to get more people to write bios, they could give them example profiles to look at. This lets them know what’s generally expected of them.
They could change the question to be more specific, making an answer easier to call to mind. A competing dating app, Coffee Meets Bagel, does this by asking users: “I am ___” “I like ___” and “I appreciate when my date___.” Though this is asking more of users, they have a clearer idea of what they’re supposed to do so you see more profiles with the information completed.
They could also gamify it a little. Think about LinkedIn. When you’re creating a profile, you have a circle that gets progressively fuller as you fill in more information. At different levels, they give you a rank, until eventually, when it’s complete, you get the rank of All-Star. It’s not often you see incomplete profiles on LinkedIn.
Tinder already displays a user’s favorite Spotify artists and pictures from their Instagram account, which make it so users just need to sign in to have meaningful conversation starters added to their profile. Maybe their bio from Instagram could auto load to their Tinder profile.
There are plenty of ways to skin a cat, none of which Tinder tries. Right now, you can write a bio if you want to, but you have to be totally self-motivated to do it. They seem content with the state of things as they are, but bios could help start conversations amongst users who match. Not designing in a way that encourages them seems to be leaving a better user experience on the table. However, behavioral design gives you the tools to get users to take action! Having people complete their profiles isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. These suggestions encourage you to do so by incentivizing the behavior, making the questions clearer, and reducing cognitive difficulty.
Recognize what behaviors from users are important to your goals and encourage them by setting up the choices and information they receive accordingly.
Condition people with rewards that happen infrequently to create habitual use.
Get users to think about your app as often as you can so they associate situations throughout their day with app usage.
Have questions, feedback, or a recommendation for an app or service I should take a look at? Comment or email me at [email protected]