How Hinge muted the gamification of dating

Repeat Customer podcast, Season 2, Episode 5

When dating app Hinge shifted its platform to mobile and adopted the swipe feature, along with other apps like Tinder, its customer base soared along with its valuation. But as hookup culture gripped the Millennial demographic, founder Justin McLeod realized Hinge's new customer experience was working against its mission of helping people find lasting and fulfilling relationships.

Relationship expert Dr. Monica O'Neal outlines the rapidly changing landscape and impact of online dating and mobile dating; Chris Stegner, Founder and CEO of Very Big Things, weighs in with the impact of UX; and Justin recounts Hinge's risky decision to confront the gamification of dating apps, as well as how his own romantic situation influenced that decision.

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Transcript

[Mio Adilman]
Hey, this is Mio. Before we get started, just a quick heads up. Hinge is a dating app in case you're not familiar with it. And as you might expect, any discussion about a dating app is going to include some talk about sex. Nothing explicit, but just be aware in case you're listening with children or at work or if you just don't want to hear a story that includes grownups talking about dating and having sex. Still with us? OK. Queue some romantic music, please.

[Sarah Ellis]
So I started online dating when I moved to New York. I didn't know a lot of people and I figured it would help me get out.

[Mio Adilman]
So Sarah Ellis went on her phone and joined the dating app. Super easy, right?

[Sarah Ellis]
I downloaded it and then it was like, this is horrifying. So yeah, I mean I got a lot of the, like, 2 a.m. like, hey, what's up?

[Mio Adilman]
But wait, it wasn't just random booty calls. There's more.

[Sarah Ellis]
It was just the amount of body pics on the bio where they were looking for threesomes, which was just like kind of bizarre. You feel like it's going to be like, oh, online dating. So cute and casual in my spare time and I was like, this is work. This is like a part-time job.

[Mio Adilman]
Sarah tried a bunch of different apps with no luck and then...

[Sarah Ellis]
Hinge was like the last one out of all those that I really got into. I hadn't heard of it at all.

[Mio Adilman]
An app called Hinge was Sarah's last chance for romance.

[Sarah Ellis]
Yeah. Thanks, Hinge, for introducing me to my current boyfriend because it's going great.

[Mio Adilman]
Welcome to Repeat Customer. An original podcast from Zendesk about great customer experiences, how companies create them and why their super fans love them so much.

[Mio Adilman]
Zendesk is a customer service and engagement platform and I'm Mio Adilman, looking for love in all the wrong places when people like Sarah are finding it on their phones in the form of Hinge.

[Sarah Ellis]
I definitely recommend it to friends who were, like, tired of the swiping culture.

[Mio Adilman]
Hinge has re-imagined the user experience of dating apps. It wants you to stop swiping. Even more radical Hinge wants you to get off Hinge as soon as possible and into a real relationship.

[Monica O'Neal]
The role of digital dating in comparison to maybe even 15 years ago has completely just exploded and so like it's rare. I think that people actually say that they meet people in real life anymore.

[Mio Adilman]
OK, so here's the thing. I'm one of those rare people who actually met someone in real life before the explosion of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge. I've never even been on one. So I'm talking to someone who studies how people date, hookup, fall in love, you know? All of that lovey-dovey gushy stuff.

[Monica O'Neal]
Hi, my name is Dr. Monica O'Neal, and I am a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert and Harvard Medical School lecturer.

[Mio Adilman]
Dating is probably the oldest pain point in the world. We've gone from arranged marriage to match makers, the classified ads, to Craigslist, to online dating, to dating apps. Did I miss anything? Meeting the right person is this constant challenge, one that fuels an always evolving business. Even for Hinge, it's customer experience has changed a few times and although it launched in 2012, Hinge is having a serious moment right now. Marriage announcement sections of newspapers are full of newlyweds who say they connected on the app. Even a guy running for President, Pete Buttigieg met his husband on Hinge. The key here is that people are finding lasting relationships on their phones, which is not what we've come to expect from mobile dating apps

[Monica O'Neal]
In the early 2000s, online dating was still specific to the computer. Match.com and eharmony and random little boutique sites. And so at the beginning it really kind of was this unique, interesting way for people to be able just to meet beyond their circle. People would actually have to go online, they would have to upload a photo that they would have to somehow figure out a way to download from their digital camera or scan-in. You actually had to read through people's profiles to decide whether or not you're a match. For the most part, you really had to spend a little bit more time investing and getting to know somebody.

[Mio Adilman]
By today's standards, online dating took way more time and consideration and you had to pay. But it was worth it for busy professionals and for people just getting back into dating after like you know, a divorce.

[Justin McLeod]
At the time like no young people use dating services. It was like totally unheard of. There was no Tinder, there was no Bumble, it was just match.com and that was something that maybe like your Aunt Becky used but you would never use.

[Mio Adilman]
And this was a bit unfortunate for [Justin McLeod], the guy who would later create Hinge.

[Justin McLeod]
I dated this girl, her name was Kate all through college and I was totally in love with her, but I was also just a total train wreck in college and we sort of broke up at the end of school and went our separate ways. I moved to Washington DC and just compared everyone to Kate.

[Mio Adilman]
Comparing everyone to his ex-girlfriend Kate made dating difficult. But there was also another challenge.

[Justin McLeod]
I was such a train wreck in college that the day I graduated college, I stopped drinking. I stopped doing drugs. I stopped doing all that stuff. So I actually had a hard time meeting new people because all social culture kind of revolved around drinking and that was especially true when I got to Harvard.

[Mio Adilman]
A few years out of college, Justin McLeod went to Harvard Business School.

[Justin McLeod]
I reached out to Kate for years after we had broken up and tried to get back together with her and she was living in London with another guy and said that it was kinda too late and I was totally heartbroken.

[Mio Adilman]
Unrequited love is the worst kind of love, I feel that. But then as Justin nursed a broken heart at Harvard, he got a chance to do something about it for other people. At the end of his business program, Justin joined the committee planning something called a last chance dance.

[Justin McLeod]
So, it's like usually at like your last year of high school or your last year of college and you sort of list your secret crushes and you might find out that someone that you had this sort of secret crush on for all these years also had a crush on you. So is just like last chance to find that out. There were a thousand people in my class and so it was quite hard for them to manage the process.

[Mio Adilman]
Justin had grown up doing a bit of coding as a kid.

[Justin McLeod]
And so I was gonna build this Facebook app that would allow people to go through their Facebook friends and check which ones they had a crush on and then it would let you know.

[Mio Adilman]
Do you remember that back when most people's first experience with apps was on Facebook? Justin created an app to help other people maybe avoid their own unrequited love.

[Justin McLeod]
This opportunity to use Facebook and the Facebook network of friends of friends to meet those people that you would eventually meet at a house party or a wedding or whatever you were going to meet them at one day. And so the idea of accelerating that process and meeting that person today was really, really exciting to me.

[Mio Adilman]
And it was something he pursued after leaving Harvard. But not everyone was as excited by the idea.

[Justin McLeod]
I would go to VCs and they'd be like match.com owns this market. It's totally saturated and it's not like all the single people are in their 20s, like no one uses dating services. This is the most under saturated market of all time. I just felt like this had to exist in the world and it was just my mission to make it, to bring it into existence.

[Mio Adilman]
In 2012, Justin launched a refined version of that last chance dance Facebook app, a dating app for Millennials called Hinge.

[Justin McLeod]
Originally, Hinge was a Facebook canvas app. You could like go to Hinge within Facebook. You sort of go through your friends and you would rate them whether they're your type or not and then we would start showing you friends of friends trying to learn your taste over time.

[Mio Adilman]
Soon after a website was added and if you and another person rated each other four or five out of five, you had a match.

[Justin McLeod]
Every single time someone matched, we would connect them over email. Like personalized and customized and it would say like, Hey John, meet Lucy. Lucy went to school here. And we'd sometimes like even throw in like a made up little fact about you.

[Mio Adilman]
Really?

[Justin McLeod]
Yeah. Just as like a funny quirk in a joke to get the conversation started.

[Mio Adilman]
Justin simplified that laborious process Dr. Monica described earlier. Signing up for online-dating sites, you didn't really have to do much at all because Hinge connected you seamlessly to a larger social network of existing profiles. But remember Millennials weren't really used to dating sites.

[Justin McLeod]
We'd had like 5,000 people sign up to Hinge over the course of, like, six months and just wasn't going anywhere.

[Mio Adilman]
So Hinge was quickly on life support by the end of 2012 but then Justin made a well- timed decision.

[Justin McLeod]
We decided to pivot to mobile.

[Mio Adilman]
Well timed because it coincided with the launch of another mobile dating app. Have you heard of Tinder?

[Monica O'Neal]
So when online-dating platform switched from being on the desktop to the actual mobile phone, it really just made it so accessible to so many people. I mean, it changed the whole game completely.

[Mio Adilman]
Dr Monica is describing the early days of something called “swipe culture.”

[Monica O'Neal]
The swipe feature was a huge game-changer.

[Mio Adilman]
By 2013, mobile phones had really penetrated the market.

[Monica O'Neal]
All you had to do was look at a photo, decide whether or not you like it and use your thumb to just swipe left or right. Left being no and right being yes. This is what I'm attracted to. The drive for sex, the drive for connection is something that we all have. It's such a basic human quality. It just made it so much easier for us to do and to enjoy.

[Mio Adilman]
Mobile completely changed dating. It was free, it was fast, it was plentiful. There was often an element of anonymity and Millennials were all over it. Tinder, which started as a dating app instead became known as a hookup app. You could say it triggered a sexual revolution and many new apps followed. All of them offered swipe, so Hinge added it, too.

[Justin McLeod]
And we rode that wave and we were sort of seen as like classy Tinder, right? They were people in nearby. We were people through your friend network. We showed first and last name and workplace.

[Mio Adilman]
Hinge kept more of an emphasis on relationships than Tinder by keeping profiles more transparent and connecting you to people in your larger social group.

[Justin McLeod]
We were growing among Millennials and the big coastal cities. I was turning away billions of dollars. That's how hot the market was when we raised our round in 2014.

[Mio Adilman]
But this amazing, liberating new dating experience. This swipe culture wasn't going to stay hot for everyone, including Hinge. And we're going to get to that next chapter in a moment because it involves some delicious irony. But first I gotta tell you something crazy about Justin's own dating life because what happened to him directly impacts what later happened to Hinge's customer experience.

[Justin McLeod]
I think I viewed relationships as validation. Like, I wanted to get someone to like me and then once they did, I was kind of over it and on to the next person. And that's kind of how I viewed relationships up until meeting Kate which started to change that equation for me a little bit or a lot actually.

[Mio Adilman]
In around 2014, despite Hinge's success, Justin still couldn't shake the memory of his failed relationship to that ex-girlfriend, Kate.

[Justin McLeod]
Because at that point I had written her a letter every year on her birthday and she never responded. So I was like, OK, it's really over.

[Mio Adilman]
But one day work brought him to London where she'd been living.

[Justin McLeod]
And so I shot her a message and I just said, hey, going to be in London. Weird to think I'm never going to see you again. Would love 15 minutes, just to kind of say Hi and goodbye. And to my surprise, the next morning I woke up and she'd responded. She'd moved from London to Switzerland and I found myself on a plane flying to Switzerland then that day and I asked her to come back to America with me and call off her wedding that was about a month away to that guy.

[Mio Adilman]
That's a big thing to ask.

[Justin McLeod]
Yeah, it was a wild ride. Let me tell you.

[Mio Adilman]
So what did she say?

[Justin McLeod]
We had this really special connection back in the day, right? I think that she just didn't trust me from, like, my crazy days in college. Like that's the last version she'd seen of me. But I think when we saw each other, it was just so clear to us both that we wanted to be together, which I know sounds just insane but we just knew. And so she came back and I mean really up until this point, I'd never had a grownup relationship in my life.

[Mio Adilman]
Excuse me. I think some dust just got stuck in my eye. OK. So the guy who used to view dating as a form of validation got a second chance at true connection. A real relationship. Amazingly, Kate broke off her engagement and moved back to New York with Justin and they started over, but at the same time, that mobile app sexual revolution, Dr Monica described earlier was losing its stamina. Perhaps the hype was a little premature.

[Monica O'Neal]
Even though people are on these apps and will have short term relationships or just like a brief sexual encounter or casual encounter. For the most part, most people are on these apps because they actually do want to meet somebody to be able to have a long term relationship. The majority of people on the apps.

[Mio Adilman]
Casual hookups are pretty common in modern dating. At some point though, most hearts including mine, yearn for something more, but swipe culture had taken over. I mean it sort of became a problem.

[Monica O'Neal]
You know, the little sounds of like the little ding ding ding which you got to swipe or like the match the way it flashes up in your face. It's almost like hitting the slot every time you match with somebody and it's easy as pulling a lever, pressing a button and so the idea of like it becomes this mindless thing that slowly makes you addicted to it. Having like an ongoing conversation started to require more energy than swiping does. Yeah, I mean it might be exciting for a while that you get a message from somebody and you get that ding, but then you have to respond and that's not as fun as swiping.

[Mio Adilman]
And not as profitable for dating apps as swiping.

[Monica O'Neal]
Their business model is to keep people on the site. They just want to introduce you to a wider pool and unfortunately what that does is that also makes people think that they have more options and so with more options you tend to keep looking for another option.

[Mio Adilman]
So this might be a weird analogy, but I kind of do the same thing on Netflix where I keep just scrolling through the options without ever watching anything. Anyway, hookup culture had essentially become a video game and here's the irony.

[Monica O'Neal]
Millennials are the group who are having the least amount of sex compared to any other generation. They have all the tools available to them and they're still having the least amount of sex because they are least likely to be in relationships as well. You have the most sex in a relationship, you know you have the ability, you know, I mean I guess you can have sex every day with anybody you want, right? Like when you're actually with somebody, you have access to sex more often than not.

[Mio Adilman]
All of this was summed up in a 2015 Vanity Fair article called, "Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse." It was an alarm bell for some people in the dating industry.

[Justin McLeod]
We just were not serving our users. I started this because I wanted to help people connect and find relationships.

[Mio Adilman]
But by mimicking the user experience of other dating apps with things like swipe, Hinge had started working against its own mission.

[Justin McLeod]
At the end of 2015, early 2016, that's when I decided to really tear the whole thing down and rebuild from scratch to what Hinge is today.

[Mio Adilman]
But the challenge was pretty clear. How do you compete against the Tinder monster if you stopped playing its game?

[Justin McLeod]
I think as a company, if you're truly focused on long term success, your primary measure should be how well you're serving your customer and not how fast are you growing or what are your sort of internal success metrics. If you get too focused on those internal metrics of growth and monetization and engagement and at least those are the metrics that you measure in the world of apps. You can very quickly lose sight of why you exist in the first place as a company.

[Mio Adilman]
In 2016, Hinge refocused on its core customers and relaunched the app with a renewed commitment to getting users out on dates.

[Justin McLeod]
That completely changed the design of the app. We developed deeper profiles that had a lot more information on them and required more of users to participate. You actually had to go through a signup flow and answer these prompts. Things like qualities I'm looking for in a plus one wedding date or two truths and a lie is a great one because you just you'd know instantly how to start that conversation. You know to guess which one is the lie. And so it's a great way to get people chatting.

[Mio Adilman]
This is all great, but if I'm funding Hinge, I'm probably thinking this is a risky move.

[Justin McLeod]
We're OK losing 20 percent of our users during that process. Because those are people that we assumed weren't really gonna be willing to put in the effort and finding a relationship takes effort.

[Mio Adilman]
Hinge was asking people to take more time considering how they presented themselves on the app. Sort of like how those old dating websites used to do it. Perhaps more radical than that though, Hinge replace swiping and asked you to give likes to people's content. Kind of how you do things on Instagram.

[Justin McLeod]
When you're scrolling through your profile and you have to choose something to like, that's a lot more, I'll say vulnerable. You have to, you know, the other person's going to get this notification, they're going to see you like this thing about them. And that's just a completely different experience in flicking your thumb. Really it mimics how people interact in real life. If you like someone, you don't just walk up to them and say, I like you. You've noticed something about them. You say something about them, you get a conversation started. As a result of that, we get much better data for our machine learning algorithms, which can provide much better recommendations for people. It just goes on and on. We show you who likes you upfront so you don't swipe or you don't like someone just to see if they liked you back, which also creates a ton of engagement but isn't really that noise in the system is really bad for learning your taste or for helping you focus.

We added “most compatible,” which is the one person that day that we think that you're going to like, who's going to like you back so that you don't get overwhelmed with the amount of choice. We introduced ‘we met’ where we actually ask you about your dates after you've exchanged phone numbers so that we can better your recommendations over time as we learn your taste about what types of people you like when you actually get out in real life.

[Mio Adilman]
And you find it effective?

[Justin McLeod]
Yes. So actually the most compatible people are eight times more likely to go on a date with that person than they are relative to other people we would show them. And that's why, I mean our users are only spending six minutes per day on the app and yet we're setting up, now, a date every four seconds. Three out of four dates, people want to go on a second date.

[Mio Adilman]
These days, Hinge has even taken the unusual step of working with someone they call an anti-retention specialist. A consultant who helps them help you actually get off the app as quick as you can. This reminds me of brands like that outdoor-gear company REI that encouraged you to recycle clothing and not buy so much stuff. The other thing Hinge has done that I find fascinating and that we haven't really touched on before on Repeat Customer is, it's seriously altered its interface to compliment other aspects of the relaunch.

[Justin McLeod]
We really tweaked the app to get rid of any feeling of gamification like no bounciness, no explosions. Even though the things like when you tap the like button on someone's photo, it used to sort of like pop and bounce and then land on the screen and then you would fill it out and then it would sort of like again, zoom out and zoom in and then disappear. And now if you look at it, it's just very gentle movements, fades, resizes that I think just makes it feel really clean and simple but not so like gamey.

[Mio Adilman]
I get how losing the bounciness and explosions lessens an app's gamification, but Hinge's redesigned, went deeper than that.

[Chris Stegner]
Right from the get go, it feels obvious to me that they are going for more of almost like an emotional kind of feeling to it.

[Mio Adilman]
Which is why I've asked Chris Stegner for some guidance. He deals with this stuff every day at his digital agency called Very Big Things.

[Chris Stegner]
Yeah, UX can have a huge effect. It's through a lot of subtle things. You know, the colors are very calm colors. They aren't, I'd say they are the opposite of kind of like your traditional passion colors, which passion's very tied with anxiety. Even those serif fonts, it's a softer font. Even if you look at the layer out up to the profiles, they're big rounded corners on images and so forth and on the text boxes. I mean, you could think of it the same way as when you're decorating a house, there's soft furniture and there's hard furniture and some feel stark and other feels like, oh, I just want to curl up in that.

[Mio Adilman]
Chris also points out changes to what used to be the red delete button.

[Chris Stegner]
Especially a red X. I don't know of anything that can really bring more emotion than a big red x. So subduing that down to just simple graze and even putting it kind of like off to the side in the lower left hand corner, which is almost one of the least used corners, you know? It's all just, lends itself to that calming, getting people to focus more on the potential of the relationship instead of maybe the game of it. Overall, it's actually a really simple app. There's very few screens and we always try to push people to do is let's focus in on the core thing that we're trying to do and just get rid of all the distractions and ... But it's amazing how much time they probably spent on those. What looked like probably six primary screens and there's probably about another 40 screens that are like hidden screens. But for the most part it's pretty simple.

[Mio Adilman]
A simple app that still conveys a lot.

[Chris Stegner]
The profiles, how they set them up is different than I've seen it on other ones. Rather than just seeing a series of photos, it's getting to know the person instead of just getting to know their photo, which is I think a turn in the right direction.

[Mio Adilman]
I mean really if you think about the customer experience, the user experience, whatever of dating apps, everything we've talked about would suggest they're actually pretty complex concepts that have these really profound impacts on not just individuals but basically whole cultures. Yet again, my mind is totally blown. So many lessons here, but the one that's really sticking with me is what Justin McLeod said about focusing on the customer instead of just short term growth monetization and engagement. Hinge got caught up for a time playing Tinder's game, but given Tinder's industry share Hinge would've lost anyway. But it was also compromising its own brand proposition of creating relationships. And speaking of relationships, what about Justin and Kate, how do they make out? Remember, Justin flew to Switzerland to woo her back.

[Justin McLeod]
She moves into my apartment, Day One. In my 340-square-foot apartment in the West Village. And that was the beginning of me having my first real adult relationship and realizing what kind of vulnerability that takes and what kind of patience that takes. And it's been the most incredible journey, but I think that was not uncoincidental that this happened about 10 months before I decided to reboot Hinge to what it is today. Because I learned that is not about validation. This is not a volume game. This isn't about just finding, burning through as many people as you possibly can until you find your perfect fit. It's about changing your orientation in your approach and helping people open up, be more vulnerable, change the way that they view other people. That's the key to connection. When it comes to my own relationship stuff and the addiction stuff, it's kind of crazy, but Hinge is basically just me projecting my subconscious onto the world in a weird way. But I've taken a lot of my own personal life lessons and build them into this app for sure.

[Mio Adilman]
Oh, man. Some more dust just got into my eye. Let me just...

You know, the other thing I like about this story is how Hinge continued to evolve its customer experience to adapt to an evolving market. It's similar to another New York-based company called SeatGeek, a live-event ticketing company that started out as a ticket aggregator, then transitioned to a secondary marketplace, and then much more after that. We're going to look at them in the next episode, but while you wait for that one, please leave me a review or check us out at zendesk.com/repeatcustomer where you can also get tips on how to up your company's customer service game because the best customer experiences are built with Zendesk. Thanks for listening.