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Online Dating in 2020: Just Build Your App Already, Nobody Cares About the Features

By Nick Epson on August 11, 2020

The advent of online dating has changed how people meet up, for better or worse. While there are certain features you might think about bringing to the online dating game when considering building an app, the reality is that virtually everything you’ve thought of is already out there in some form.

Actual dating as well as casual romps around the bedroom, the back of an Acura in some parking lot or a public bathroom has never been about some ‘feature’ – it’s about availability, attraction, and the right exchange of words. As such, the most important thing about dating pools, online or otherwise, is the compatibility of the user base.

Sit tight and join me as I explain my experiences with online dating to explain what I know to be the most important feature of any platform: the people.

How I got started in online dating and a look at different platforms

In early 2010, my romantic life was in a lull. I was living in Indy, etching out a living by working in a management role for the Geek Squad and filling in on occasion at a Lenscrafters lab. After going through a significant breakup, I occasionally needed to “scratch an itch” so I would hit up Broad Ripple, a kind of Bourbon St-like setup, but far more “Indiana.”

Truthfully, I mostly went home empty-handed. Thankfully, an ex who resided in the Bay area reached out to me and sold me on the merits of online dating (well, made me feel comfortable – she definitely didn’t need the Internet to find love) which jump-started a love-hate relation with online dating.

I got my start using Plenty of Fish (PoF) which I think captures the essence of what online dating is, or should be, at least on a free platform. You upload your best pictures, talk about yourself in a way that doesn’t make you sound undateable, then try to connect with other users you hope are datable. Next, there was OkCupid – the point is, it’s all relatively the same. Tinder would eventually come along with a refined system that first puts a picture in your face, insisting you to either investigate further or just say ‘whatever’ and swipe left for a hard pass or right in an attempt to match.

Today, when I bust out a dating app to kill some time, it’s Tinder (sometimes Bumble) because it dominates the market and it’s easy to see why. They don’t do anything that remarkable from a basic feature perspective – if you take a step back, you’ll notice you’re essentially playing a cleverly designed game.

You find someone attractive, you open their profile to see what they’re about – provided they filled in their bio– then you swipe right and cross your fingers. Once you match, the world is your oyster. You either turn on the charm and pull off a slick icebreaker based on something your match included in their profile or you just wing it with the funniest opener you can muster.

Note: you can run into problems when you think you’re funnier than you actually are. For example, asking a passionate equine veterinarian if they’re “a good shot” will result in getting verbally reamed.

Initially, Tinder felt innovative at the time it came out, at least from an online dating perspective. Although it piggybacked off Facebook’s prototype, FaceMash, it offered a modern twist and a much larger user base where profiles presented for users to swipe on was – and is to this day – heavily influenced by modifiable settings such as geolocation, gender preference, and age. Most importantly, it furnished a messaging feature, allowing people to send messages like “heyy” to each other before launching into uninspiring small talk.

One thing to note is that some apps do have novel pivots that make them relevant, like Bumble which requires women to message men first after matching. This little tweak to a basic feature set is what allowed it to compete with Tinder. Too, there are niche dating apps like The League that attempt to connect those with Ivy League degrees. In these cases, such small tweaks to an overall basic feature set are what drives these app’s appeal.

However, from a high-level perspective, there’s nothing particularly special about Tinder or other similar apps. The reason they work, at least when you don’t utter dumb drivel, is because of their user base. Let me explain why.

The only necessary features for online dating

When you build an online dating app, it only needs a few features to get off the ground:

Pictures. Sure, there are times people will use false or outdated pictures but without images, finding a match is like ordering from a Chinese food menu. If you’re a stickler for a certain aesthetic – I know I am – then you need a picture as a starting point. There are whole sites dedicated to ‘picture science’ because we tend to have the best results (at least with long-term relationships) when matching with someone of similar attractiveness, though there are some exceptions to the rule.

Matching. Tinder and Bumble, as well as Grindr and Her, don’t need much of an explanation but other platforms are a little different. For apps like PoF, OkCupid, Match, eHarmony, and probably some others, ‘matching’ is more of a manual process. Platforms derive personality metrics based on questions and analytics built into the app – these are cross-referenced against other user responses in an attempt to reveal compatibility.

OkCupid removed their personality trait section but some platforms like Plenty of Fish and Match rely heavily on these metrics. By dutifully filling in responses, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll match with someone that won’t try to drag you to shitty a nightclub when you’re the type that prefers to drink alone at home with your cat.

Messaging. This is how you talk to someone you either match with – as with Tinder and Bumble – or select from a pool of users in your dating app. Since making phone calls has been lost to the tides of time, this is how you break the ice. Thankfully, some platforms like Bumble have messaging prompts that help users who wade in the shallow end of the wit pool.

A brand. Who are you trying to connect? If you’re trying to offer the same thing as everyone else, you’ll accumulate users but it’s unlikely you’re going to compete with the veterans on the market. Think about who you want to use the app and tailor your marketing to attract this flavor of people. Note, there’s already an app for furries so if this was your million dollar idea, then you’ll need to go back to the drawing board.

To get the ball rolling, this all you really need in your interface. Once these features are in place, the real work will take place on the marketing side.

Getting off the ground: prepare for a big investment in marketing

Gaining real users who will do more than merely install your app and lurk around requires substantial marketing. Gaining traction requires “selling” your app and its merits, a lot like how the newer dating app Hinge is leveraging the angle that their app is “… designed to be deleted.” 

Because your users are far-and-away the main driver for success, the market spend required to draw a good mix of users to support your platform is substantial. You’ll need to research your prospective user base and do everything short of physically breathe in their faces to make sure they use your app.

Unless you’re taking a truly novel spin on dating like HowUdish which includes a networking feature that allows you to connect with users over some food-related camaraderie, you need to start thinking inside the box for online dating, at least at first.

Normally, pie-in-the-sky thinking is something that drives innovation but here, you’re going to fall on your face if you put too much thought into some feature over the crux of your platform: the people. Having a compatible user base is what makes apps like Tinder, PoF, Bumble, and so on decent places to at least window-shop which means you need to ensure there are people on your platform from the get-go. If getting users is an afterthought then you’re bound to fail.

The meat of online dating

There’s a great study compiled by eHarmony that breaks down the most important metrics for dating success. If you’re catering to heterosexual dating, you need to appeal to women as much as men. There are more of us dudes lurking around on these apps and we tend to have lower standards. Plus, we use apps like Tinder differently as many of us simply swipe right on everything with no regard for our dignity. I watched my roommate do this the other day – he turned his phone sideways then power swiped on some 20 people using a finger from each hand, only breaking when he landed a couple of matches.

Aside from understanding the haphazard way some of us men barrel through dating apps, you’ll need to spend time learning how users interact with your app. Going through a Design Sprint exercise is a good starting point to refine who your user base is and why they would want to use your app – this process developed by the people at GV (Google Ventures) condenses strategy and prototype development into a focused, 5-day session. Interacting with a prototype is one thing but after your app is developed and on the market, you’ll need to adapt your service in between bouts of routine maintenance to make sure it’s optimized for how your users prefer to engage. As with most apps, analytics are essential learning tools that reveal usage scenarios.

Location is another factor so using GPS to put users in closer proximity in front of each other without revealing an exact location (which is creepy and dangerous) is crucial. I probably have some great matches 1,000 miles from where I live but that doesn’t do me a lot of good. With that said, for those serious about finding the perfect someone, location can be flexible – I remember in the 90s my best friend’s mom found love in a chat room then left her husband and took my friend to Nebraska where she remarried for some years. But for most people, finding someone nearby is crucial, especially if you’re just looking for a fling.

The reality is, most people use free dating platforms (not so much Match and eHarmony) like a game, myself included, usually without even realizing it. I’m not banking on finding love, I’m looking for some combination of a pretty face and good conversation, preferably with someone as cynical as me. What this boils down to is that it should be fun, even for those in the mix with serious intentions.

Finally, branding is huge. If your online dating app caters to hookups, then say so. This will prevent users who are looking for something serious from using your app and being disappointed. Online dating, as a whole, isn’t ‘missing’ some feature: platforms need to be transparent about their goals and onboard users who fit the motif. Remember: it’s a hyper-competitive space so make sure your messaging is on point, even though your user base will most likely break the ice by saying, “I like the picture with your dog.” or “What’s up?”

Blue Label Labs can help you help others find love. Or something else

We are a company that thrives by building innovation into our products. Blue Label Labs has extensive experience in building dating app concepts and we’re experts in the Design Sprint process – though we value novelty, we understand that it’s always best to guide our customers towards viable solutions before attempting to put a new spin on a working formula. New features can translate to more revenue but it’s contingent on having a solid user base established.  Feel free to reach out to us to learn more about our development process.

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