3 Things Design Researchers Can Learn From Online Dating

“Loves asking questions, synthesizing data, and long walks to the water cooler.”

3 Things Design Researchers Can Learn From Online Dating
Photo: Instants/Getty Images Photo: Instants/Getty Images

“So, what do you do?” As a design researcher on the dating scene, I start many of my personal and professional conversations with this question, whether I am getting to know an OkCupid date or speaking with physicians to understand treatment costs. In both situations, asking the right questions helps me figure out if the interviewee will fall in love, either with the product my firm Artefact is designing or in the case of OkCupid, with me. This got me thinking: If dating and design research are similar, how might my online dating experiences inform how I practice design research?


Modern dating apps have capitalized on emerging technology to expand and change the way we date. Tinder leverages geolocation, OkCupid uses algorithms, and many apps rely on social context (take the dating site Farmers Only, for the agriculturally inclined). As design research and human-centered innovation continue to scale and adapt to the digital age, here are three lessons design researchers can learn from online dating:

Photo: Jasmina007/Getty Images

1. Date Your Data
Online daters are experts at making decisions based on quantitative and qualitative data. The process of online dating often starts by sifting through several algorithmically suggested profiles and examining the data provided by the application to gauge your interest. Once you find someone whose data intrigues you–maybe this person is an 87% match, 6-foot-5, and loves corgis–you make the decision to meet in real life. That’s when you gain a crucial layer of qualitative data: insight into chemistry and compatibility. It’s only through the qualitative research, messaging potential love interests, and going on dates that you can determine whether you would like to continue seeing someone.

The same is true in the design world. As our work becomes more data-driven, design researchers can increasingly provide value by integrating data science and ethnographic methods to shape design. For instance, we recently partnered with the city of Seattle to help reduce youth homelessness. Our quantitative research told us that of the 700 homeless youth and young adults in Seattle, approximately 70% have cell phone access. Based on this data, we were inspired to explore opportunities that would connect youth with resources using smartphones.

However, once we conducted qualitative research through interviews with homeless youth and local service providers, we learned that in isolation, mobile phones were not a viable medium for our design solution. The people we spoke with shared that they often had difficulty charging their phones, ran out of data, or had their phones stolen. By synthesizing quantitative and qualitative data, we designed a more accessible tool that leveraged relationships with existing local service providers — not the mobile-first solution that seemed obvious from statistical data at first glance.

2. Get Engaged, Repeatedly
Online dating platforms foster immersive interactions that engage their users. Dating apps provide a dazzling array of potential connections. They also make the act of exploring and choosing potential dates a satisfying and fun process (swipe right, swipe left, anyone?). The presence of choice creates a perception of control, increasing enjoyment.

Researchers have long engaged users through participatory methods like co-designing and cultural probes that invoke a sense of control. How might we make these research methods more immersive and engaging?


Consider VR: In the near future, we will use it as an ethnographic tool to engage users and get their direct feedback in contextually relevant ways. Participants can virtually interact with a physician. Instead of looking at blueprints or sketches of a waiting room, patients can walk through one in VR and modify its appearance and layout to suit their needs and preferences. These immersive experiences could provide design researchers with valuable insights that might not be readily apparent using more conventional research methods.

3. Share Your “Happily Ever Afters”
Online dating platforms are masters at generating measurable value. Sites like eHarmony consistently advertise how a previously lonely person meets the love of his life once joining. Market researchers are also examining the average length of relationships that result from different dating apps.

The research phase of design is crucial–it ensures that products address real human and business problems. Yet while designers can easily show their value through the products they create, design researchers have traditionally experienced more difficulty quantifying the value of our work.

Like in online dating, capturing the right metrics as we conduct design research is imperative. For instance, the first Obama presidential campaign wanted to determine which website design would lead to the most email signups. Design research using A/B testing led to an image and button text change that resulted in 40% more signups. Forty percent is an impressive increase–translated to revenue, this simple design change raised an additional $60 million in donations. This case study is an excellent reminder for design researchers to quantify our impact through metrics that organizations deeply value. Rather than, “We need to speak with users,” tell your stakeholders the potential cost of a product flop due to lack of research.

As design researchers, we strive to know our users so that our teams can design more effectively for them. If we follow the lead of online dating in adapting to technology, we will better serve our users and teams and are more likely to find love in the digital age.