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Designing Women

How To Design A Dating App That Empowers Women

Two Tinder alums, now with the dating app Bumble, discuss design, feminism, and intimacy in the Internet age.

[Top Photo: Flickr user freestocks.org]

How did you get here? What was your road, both from a design and a business perspective?

SM: I started out going to school for print design—I wanted to work for a magazine doing layout. Then I realized that digital was going to be the way of things, and so I started work doing web, and then very shortly after that realized that apps were going to take over web, so I switched to mobile design. I eventually ended up getting a job offer from Conan O’Brien which sounded like a good opportunity, so my partner Chris Gulczynski and I moved to L.A. And then Chris joined Tinder, and they created the whole product. About six months later I said, 'Hey, do you guys need a second designer?' And that’s how I joined Tinder and where we met Whitney.

WW: I knew I wanted to do something that would have a big impact in a positive way. And the biggest way to do that is through tech. And so I joined Hatch Labs blindly, not knowing exactly what I was going to do, just get my hands dirty in all different areas and learn. That was where we set up Cardify which eventually we shelved to work on Matchbox, which became Tinder. I was at Tinder for two years. Then began work on Bumble about six months after I left.

So tell us: what is Bumble?

WW: Bumble is a platform that allows women and men to date in a modern, confident, and empowered way. It turns the expectations of our current dating scene on its head, where there’s a lot of social implications and expectations that exist, and I think it really kind of wipes those out, and says that it’s okay to treat one another with respect. And it’s okay to be confident. It’s okay to go after what you want.

SM: I’ve always self-identified as a feminist, and in the world of dating there are so many antiquated gender roles that are really frustrating. So when we were talking about designing a dating app for connecting people, the first thought was let’s build something that’s very kind. But then also, let’s do something that will at least try to sort of shift those gender roles. We want women on the app to feel like they have the ability to take control, when maybe if in real life they wouldn’t or haven’t ever been able to. For me personally it was a really empowering and exciting idea right out of the gate.

Clearly design became a real lynchpin to the success of the company.

WW: In my opinion as CEO, I cannot design to save my life. But I think people underestimate the importance of it, and I would say that without Sarah or Chris and their design efforts—and as we go down the road and more designers join—we’re pretty much up against the wall of failure without great design. And I think it is such an important part of the company.

You guys talked a little about what the product is about, the ethos of this product. So how do you think about designing a product that empowers people? What are some of the thought processes that went behind that? For designers it’s an interesting design challenge.

SM: The goal was to make something that was really functional that felt like it made sense, but then also impose some limitations, some sort of organization, to where you could empower people. So when you think of something like imposing a rule within an app, basically, that women have to chat first, that could be a very clunky, sort of odd thing to approach. What we thought and talked about in the office was how can we integrate this in a way that feels really comfortable and natural to the women using the app, and we tell them, this is just what you do on Bumble, so that it’s normal for them.

Sarah Mick

Do you think that there’s a difference in how men and women approach design?

WW: I think that a big shame of how women are approached in business is they’re often times looked to for perspective and not implementation. It’s really fascinating to see women actually calling the shots at the company, and then it’s kind of a strange thing how that’s actually what’s happening with our product as well—that a woman is not only in the driver’s seat within the product, but here, women are in the driver’s seat with the business as well. A big part of the reason so many women love our product is because of that.

SM: There has to be some kind of sense there that this is not something coming from men sitting in an office guessing at what women want.

Talk about some of the features that you put into the app that are special from a design perspective.

WW: The whole concept for the product kind of came together in about five seconds. It took a long time to get there, but when we finally got there it was almost like: the woman’s going to go first, matches are going to expire, and guys are going to have one chance a day. It was kind of this boom-boom-boom scenario, where the decision was made instantaneously. A lot of the way that plays in is very psychological. If a woman’s making the first move, she’s not used to that. You need to put some time restrictions in there. You need to create a sense of urgency if you’re going to make it acceptable.

SM: Some of the most exciting stuff was getting to dive into the more psychological aspects of designing a dating app. At first it was, well, let’s make sure the woman messages first. And then the next thought was, well, what if she never does? And then let’s put a time limit on it. I think one of the reasons why Bumble is so exciting and checks so many of the boxes on my list of what makes a good app is because we had a great team of people who are open-minded and willing to concede here or stand up there, and we just worked together and worked well.

WW: And the brand—in my opinion the brand is everything. We had so much fun de-signing around all of the puns , emojis, etc, and we knew we wanted this to be a really young, millennial, zeitgeist-y thing. We don’t take ourselves to seriously and the design and branding reflect that.

Let’s talk about the design world. Any trends that you see that you like?

SM: Trends that I like right now are generally really clean. I like to think about design in more of its original, simplest form. When I see something that is really simple and has few elements but is still beautiful, that’s the kind of stuff I get really excited about.

Whitney Wolfe

And what do you think needs to go from a design perspective?

SM: One thing that really bugs me is when there are free fonts available that people totally overuse, where you’ll see a font and it’ll go into the design world, and everyone will be like, oh, this is beautiful, and it is well done by a great designer or something, and designers will use it, but then all of a sudden Whole Foods has it on their billboard, and it’s on fliers for bars. And I’m thinking, ‘That was cool a year and a half ago’.

What do you think the role of design is in this whole dating industry? This is an industry that’s obviously been around for eons. It seems that design has really influenced this industry.

WW: We’re such visual people and dating is such an intimate, personal decision, and you want to feel comfortable. And if we’re saying this is the place you are meeting someone you are potentially going to be with you need to give them a comfortable atmosphere and setting to do that in, and that really comes down to design, if you think about it. Colors, the way it feels, the way it looks, what it’s telling you—those intrinsic kind of signals. And if you’re staring at a phone and that’s how you’re picking someone to date, if the vibe is over-sexualized, or almost stuffy—you know there are a few dating apps out there that feel like a LinkedIn or Meetup of sorts that are almost too professional feeling, then you feel awkward considering a date from it. And that all comes down to design.

SM: A lot of it comes down to a color, which for apps there’s always the call-out color. And so when we were talking about Bumble, I was so happy as a designer because it was obviously going to be yellow. That gets us out of the blue which has become ubiquitous for apps. Red is really urgent and can be over-sexualized, and then green makes me think of exercise and foods. So when I thought of yellow, it was like it’s playful, it’s fun, and it fit the name.

Do you think it’s going to be hard to keep design as an integral part of the business as you grow it?

WW: Design will always be a huge component of our success. The way we connect with users is so important. And how do you connect with your users or your target audience without showing them something visual? I can’t get on a microphone and scream to all of our users. We need to show them something and make them feel special, welcome, and appreciated. And design can make you feel that way. We are visual creatures, and we have to always keep that close to our goals.

Let’s talk a little bit about motivation in the team. How do you keep your team motivated? Because you want to keep that creativity fresh and new. What do you guys do?

SM: One of the things that keeps me motivated is that I’ve been with the product from the beginning, and so you have that sense that the product is your baby, which is beneficial as a designer because if you come on to something later on you can of course get really involved in it really quickly, but to have the advantage of seeing it from the beginning, and working on it and creating it, that makes me feel a sort of allegiance to it. What also motivates me is making it better. So when I look back at those old screenshots and what we’re working on is constantly saying what I loved yesterday can be much better today. And how can we improve that? Ownership as well as wanting to deliver something really, really great, those are my main motivators.

You guys have a very unique relationship, working together like this. Do you think that comes easier to women in terms of the camaraderie and the teamwork that goes on, or do you think that’s in general, it’s just a personality-driven thing?

WW: My biggest struggle being a woman in the workforce has not only been with my mother, my grandmother, and a lot of my girlfriends. When I’m working late hours I’m almost punished for it by them. It’s almost absurd that I would prioritize work over catching up with my girlfriends. If I were a man, that would just come second nature. Dad’s at work until 8 p.m. We’ll see Dad later. But if you’re a working woman, why are you a working woman? Why aren’t you just a woman at work, like a man that goes to work? I’ve struggled with the kind of societal expectations of my girlfriends, and I almost get ostracized for certain things, because it’s, 'Oh, she’s just working.' But if I were a man I’d be James Bond. Like, 'Wow, he’s so cool. He works so much.' It’s a cultural thing where if you’re a woman who works long hours, people assume you’re a certain way.

You talked about identifying yourself as a feminist. Not words commonly used in the workplace in business. What does it mean to you?

SM: To me, feminism means equality, so for women to be elevated because they are not on an equal playing field, elevated to the same level as men, and to be treated with respect and to be allowed to do what they want to do without being judged for it because they’re a woman. Basically taking the woman element out of the equation and just letting us be a person. I’m just here. And I think it’s a dirty word because it’s been represented for decades as something—in the press and in all sorts of different ways and through word of mouth—it’s a threat. It’s a patriarchal threat.


WW: It’s almost like people don’t actually don’t know what the word means. And to be fully honest with you, literally a few months before Bumble started if you’d asked me if I was a feminist I would’ve said no, because I would’ve been scared of what guys would think of me. And I’ve struggled with this so badly over the last few years—trying to not be perceived as these nasty words that men use toward women. And it’s almost like I was doing women a disservice by being ignorant in that area, and I admit to it. I’m not here to tell you anything that’s not true. If we want to create change, we all have to be feminists—men, women, everyone needs to acknowledge that. Sometimes I have more in common with the man than I do the woman in the room

I know you’re technically not supposed to hug in the workplace, but are you huggers?

WW: I hug everyone.

SM: These guys hug. I am not a hugger.

WW: You’re not a hugger?

SM: No.

WW: I gave you a hug yesterday.

SM: I hug all of these guys, but I just … they don’t know I’m not a hugger because I always give the hug.

WW: Why do you hate hugging?

SM: I don’t know, it just feels odd. It’s like I’d rather just smile and shake hands.

WW: Honestly, I’d rather hug than shake hands. I don’t know where those hands have been! Yeah, so to answer your question, we are huggers. Except for Sarah.

SM: Except for me, yeah.

WW: But she’s forced into hugging.

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