Love on the line. Part 1: The Research

Love on the line. Part 1: The Research

A few months ago I hopped back onto OkCupid to meet some folks. And then I had this idea that maybe it would be fun to make my own dating site as a way to learn how to make a web app of some kind. I figure making a profile and adding information to it is a pretty standard sort of web app thing to do. So I proceeded to sign up for a bunch of other sites to see how they were doing things, only to conclude that for the most part they weren’t doing things very well at all. From the user interface to the user experience, mostly I was amazed at how awful things are in the online dating world and yet how profitable they continue to be despite their serious flaws. I guess connecting with people is always in demand. Here’s some thoughts on how I felt on various sites. I didn’t pay for any of them, so these are based on being a free/unconverted user.

Plenty of Fish: Feels like I’m talking to a dude in a trench coat in a dark alley.

I read this article a while ago about how the founder of POF makes boat loads of money doing about an hour of work a day on the site, and honestly it made me a little mad. I just couldn’t understand how that was even possible considering how awful the site was.  It basically feels super trashy and makes me feel like I was surrounded by scum bag type dudes. It’s free but heavily supported by the scummiest ads on the internet (“reduce belly fat now!” “rich white men looking for asian women!”) though they’re not in these screenshots. The people who sent messages equally trashy and unable to form complete sentences.

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Chemistry: Feels like I’m talking to a doctor about an awkward rash.

Chemistry owned by Match, and much like Match it makes me feel like I’m digging through a bunch of permanent records or criminal profiles or something. I find it odd that on the match results the personality dot is where most sites put a profile picture. In this case the data about the person is more important than the actual person it seems. And even on the individual person’s profile the person is reduced to a tiny part of the screen. I guess it makes sense that it’s supposed to be some sort of scientific thing, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s report.

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Match: Feels like I’m trying to explain the internet to a stingy old man with an AOL cd.

Time warp! I just teleported back to the 90′s! I would say I don’t understand how Match is so popular given how horrible it feels to use it, but I know the answer is because they have huge mindshare since they’ve been around for so long. Problem is it looks like they never evolved from where they started years ago. Again it feels like I’m reading a criminal record or something. And paying membership fees just to respond to people is lame. It’s clear they’re trying to do some new things though, as they have been starting things that are more about offline events.

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eHarmony: Feels like I’m talking to an pretty cool hip dude who turns out to be way older and stingier than I was led to believe

I have to give eHarmony props for their new profile design. It’s the only one that features the user profile front and center, clearly making an attempt to create a sort of story about the person as opposed to just a listing. Answering the questions is fun and pretty well designed. Generally seems nice except that you have to pay to even see the match photos, and that just isn’t going to fly. Just looking at the people in your database should be a basic feature, not a premium feature.

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But then I realize the rest of the site still looks like this… and I’m seriously disappointed. Mostly I feel like the site is targeting people in their late 30′s-40′s though the recent ad campaigns and re-design would suggest they’re trying to capture a younger market. I say keep trying..

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How about we: Feels like I’m at a hipster bar talking to a 20-something dude who only speaks in tweetable phrases

These guys try to forgo the whole elaborate matching thing in favor of meeting people based on little one-liner date ideas. There are more in depth profiles as well of course, but the the idea is to get offline asap, which is commendable. But it feels really shallow and hard to relate to a lot of these dudes. Also having to pay to send or read messages is lame. Making an effort to contact someone is hard enough, you don’t need more barriers to make that happen. Design wise though they’re looking nice at least. And it seems they’re expanding their audience, while most sites are trying to get the young and hip, they’re trying to get the older folks.

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Nerve: Feels like I’m talking to that arrogant guy who scoffs at me when I haven’t heard of such-n-such band.

Nerve’s matching seems based almost entirely on what types of media people consume and what they did last night. Seems relatively reasonable in theory but in practice it feels just as shallow as howaboutwe, though clearly has a more literate bent. It does feel slightly classier since they reference cultural works but mostly it’s surface level. But design wise it pretty clean and well done, though like many other sites the profile feels like yet another profile…

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Ok Cupid: Feels like I’m talking to one of my nerdy but cool friends who has a good sense of humor about the whole thing.

Even after all that researching OkCupid remains the favorite of the bunch. Even though they’re owned by Match now, it’s clear they’re still able to chug along doing their own interesting things. I appreciate all the basic features are free. Seeing pictures and contacting people is the core element of a site like this. A-List features are nice-to-haves as opposed to must haves. I also appreciate the transparency behind the algorithms with the match/friend/enemy percentages. They seem to be more open to the idea of a less binary approach to attraction and sexuality. A gradient of some kind. This article does a nice job of explaining their differentiators:

The innovation of OkCupid–and what distinguishes it from other “matching” sites such as eHarmony and PerfectMatch–lies in its pliability…In your mind you have a filtering process that’s built in, which is different from another guy’s filtering process. EHarmony would say they know all our filtering processes. We say we don’t. But we can give you the tools to express your filtering process. We can show you how everyone stacks up against your filter, and how you stack up against theirs. Then you’re on your own.”

As for Yagan, this side of the business is not his priority, and he distances himself from the notion that they’re relationship gurus. “We’re a bunch of math guys,” he told the Boston Globein 2007. “We don’t know anything about dating.”

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Some Conclusions

So that’s the basic lay of the land. There’s tons of other niche sites out there, but from what I can tell they’re mostly variations on these sort of themes. And many of them are just re-branded white-label scammy dating sites. These seem to be the biggest players that I could find. Overall OkCupid still wins for me since I’ve been able to meet a lot of genuinely interesting folks from there in person. So I would use them as my  baseline bar to compare to if I were to make something. But my main take aways from the survey:

  • Don’t make it feel sleazy
  • Basic features should be free, premium should be nice-to-have’s
  • The People are the most important element
  • Don’t make it look like a criminal record / patient report
  • Have some depth / Don’t be shallow
  • Allow for a gradient of attraction & repulsion
  • Be transparent about what’s being computed
  • Make it feel inviting & fun

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