Designing for dates: when contact needs a helping hand

I got into social media more or less on the heels of running an online dating service in the late 1990s. It was the san francisco bay area franchise of matchmaker.Com, and I was co-owner with a friend. I made no money on the experience, in part because of our short-sightedness, in part because we were too early. We were the first in the franchise to permit user photos. Yes you read that right.

A survey of online dating pictures was making the rounds a while back. It set me to wondering whether anyone has surveyed the use of profile descriptions and messaging on dating systems. I’d like to know whether more users depend on written profiles or initial messages as a means of sorting among candidates.

It would be fascinating to know, for example, whether there’s any consistency between those who read into a user’s profile, and those who prefer conversation. Do some people tend to project into a candidate’s profile? While others like to see how a candidate seems in conversation? Are there those for whom it’s all about the picture — including the picture’s style? While for others it might be the flirting and play that creates the hook?

Consider the matter of the profile picture. It’s purpose is to attract. It belongs to the first and most important aspect of online dating: first contact. In this it’s really advertising pure and simple. And yes, there are different ways of attracting prospects and mates, as the research showed, from what is shown to how a user looks and even where the user is shown looking. We have a lot of media literacy and exposure on which to base our decisions for how to look good in a profile picture.

But once the picture has done its magic, and a candidate has clicked through from search results to read the member’s profile, profile writing takes over. Writing and crafting profiles could be considered an art in itself. The art of being interesting, of style, of attracting deeper interest, and of course inspiring flirtation and direct messaging. As with the profile picture, this art again involves soliciting interest and is managed by means of showing and concealing, exposing and suggesting, declaring and hinting. Providing details but not all details, crafting facts about oneself while leaving more to be discovered.

Then comes the first message, and with it a whole new regime takes hold on the online dating process. For first contact is flirting, and in flirting, media literacy is replaced by social competence with the dating game. The strategies and tactics plus personal styles of messaging in dating services vary widely. I don’t know if research has been conducted into the rich variety of ways in which users could and do interact when flirting, but from what I learned while running the dating service, and from personal experience and talking to friends, I am certain of some things.

Because online dating is what it is, and for women especially can be very time consuming, a number of generic factors come into play with initial contact. Many of these simply have to do with sorting out the wheat from the chaff. These include determining the sincerity of the person. How genuine and specific is their interest (in me)? Because once first contact has been made, the interaction shifts to an exchange in which both individuals have to negotiate online conversation to determine whether a face-to-face meeting is worth pursuing.

Tactical

  • Did the person read my profile?
  • Does the message refer to what I say in my profile?
  • Is this a form message, copied and pasted?
  • Is the person’s profile worth (re)visiting?
  • Is this worth responding to?
  • Is this a person new to this or somebody spamming the field?

Truthfulness

  • Is the person who they say they are?
  • Is the person a freak?
  • How distorted was the person’s profile?
  • How much did the person exaggerate in his or her profile?
  • Is the person’s profile a good description of what s/he will be like, or is it how they would like to be seen?

Intent

  • What is the person after?
  • Is the person genuinely interested in me?
  • How much of the profile was written to attract certain kinds of candidates?

Personality

  • What is the person like?
  • Is this a person I would like?
  • Will this person be fun to message with?
  • Is this person playing the field?
  • Is the person doing this for themselves, or truly interested in me?

Compatibility

  • Are the things mentioned in the user’s profile really true?
  • Would we get along on paper — how much of what I read is accurate?
  • Would we get along in person — could we enjoy time together?

Conversation skills

  • Is the person good at messaging?
  • Is the person responsive?
  • Is the person funny?
  • Is the person talking about themselves, asking about me, or talking about us?

Follow up

  • Is the person worth meeting?
  • Is the person at least worth meeting for coffee?
  • Is the person funny, interesting, or sexy?

What makes the most difference and matters most in stretch of the online dating experience? It would be fascinating to know how users approach conversations with their courtiers, and how they (if they) take advantage of verbal and conversational skills in attracting and engaging others. Would we find any commonalities, either strategic or tactical?

For example, it would be interesting to know how practiced some users are at the practice of online dating. For we have to admit that most online dating experiences don’t result in real world dating. Would we find that users have ways of doing it that break down by their length of experience in online dating? Are there strategies or tactics that have proven merit and effectiveness ‐ for getting through the noise, for attracting responses, or for getting a first date? Are there bad first moves — as there are bad opening lines in real world situations?

Online dating sites are not all the same, varying by membership of course, but by features, too. To this end it would be interesting to know how online dating sites might mix up the ways in which members can interact so as to better the experience. Use of semi-public channels, status updating, social vouching, and real world content, for example. Dating doesn’t itself have to be the focus of activity and may in fact be more likely to happen when it’s not. And as online dating loses its stigma as a means of last resort, dating practices can become more diverse.

This last one is particularly interesting in light of the cultural shift to status updating and diverse participation in many different kinds of social scenes and contexts. Some dating sites have integrated video profiles and video chat for a richer introduction and interaction experience. But not all members want to move from the written description to video. And certainly not all members are yet comfortable with the alternative that video offers.

There are benefits to the written profile in that one can project into it, and interpret from it, what’s most appealing. We supply our own information to text that is filled in by the realism of video.

More social and even public flirtation might work for some members as a means of avoiding the tunneling and time it takes to engage in one-on-one direct messaging. Status updating in online dating systems offers some tactical advantages over the personal message. It can be useful in suggestive hints, in being real, in verifying personal consistency and gaining social acceptance. And the public conversation that can unfold around status updates is a genuine way in which to sustain the kind of social presence that might lead to dating.

The fact is that no online dating system can know what it is that compels a particular person to remain engaged. It may be the interaction, the voyeurism, interest in another member in particular, ongoing communication with a member, or even a sense of play and satisfaction derived from maintaining a profile on the service. So what online dating systems may do, in order to move beyond the match/search/browse navigation that is so predominant in those systems, is to open up interaction possibilities to create more opportunities for generating user to user interest, finding, contact, play, flirtation, and communication.

One could design these interactives around some of the concerns and themes that characterize flirtation and courtship. They might draw on users’ social networking profiles. They could be set up as games for those who like online activities, intimacies and confessions for those into truth and secrecy, daily habits and activities for those keen on compatibility, and personality-based interactions for those looking for chemistry. Streams and feeds could be used (and are in some) so that users looking now have a place to go for realtime communication. Tests, quizzes, and profile questions could be designed to pull out a greater range of personality styles (not just interests but real character-revealing stuff). Short interactives that add details to member profiles. Photo albums and photo-based games. And so on.

The more forms of interaction and the more channels there are for communication, from private to social, personal and public, the greater the chances that an online dating system facilitates a match. We’re way past the time when users were content with check-boxed interests and “about me” profile descriptions. The practice, and its services, are niche-ifying. Still, I would like to see more creativity in the system designs, especially when it comes to supporting a more diverse range of interactions. One can draw out more of a member’s personality and interests with better interaction design — for it’s not really in talking about ourselves in general that we reveal who we are, but in the context of an interest taken in a person in particular.

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