#Love: Design For It
I published this piece in TechCrunch in May 2014 at the time of the launch of the @howaboutwe couples messaging app You&Me. I’m trying to keep all my public writing together on Medium, so am now putting it live here as well.
If you believed the hype, you’d think technology was killing love.
To start, the search has been tainted, or so people say.
Algorithms are turning serendipity into superficial math. Swipe right and find yourself mired in a hookup culture gone mad. Try the likes of Grindr and experience the irrevocable blurring of the lines between dating and porn. Emojis offend the language of courtship. That photo of you five years and 20 pounds ago is…flattering. An inbox overcome by suitors and their copy+paste approach to “asking girls out” is a distorted echo of romance. The search for true love is a battle against the alienating forces of modern technology.
And then, once in love, we hear that technology is killing closeness.
Screens take us away from the moment and bring us elsewhere, into a private, isolated world of flirtation with old high school “friends,” pleasantly mind-numbing games, and the strange gratification of having 16 people like our latest Instagram creation. If you askArianna Huffington, the first thing you should do to keep love alive is to start charging your phone in the kitchen rather than the bedroom. Our dialogue with the one we love is increasingly mediated by thumb and keyboard, real speech replaced by the terseness of lol, omg, fml. Staying in love is a battle against the alienating forces of modern technology.
While I’m quite sympathetic with those who find love particularly hard to find and sustain in today’s world, I’ve come to believe love can be sweeter, richer and more wonderful than ever in our digital age.
In fact, I think it’s actually the job of makers working on problems of love to address the obstacles that tech lays in the path of love — and, more importantly, to double down on the ways tech makes love more available, more fulfilling, and sexier than ever.
In a sense, our question as product-makers should be: how can we “design for love”?
I have a rather peculiar vantage point on this question. Over the last four years my best friend and I have been building a company whose goal is to help people fall in love and stay in love. We’ve created a popular dating app. We’ve built a “date night concierge” service for people in relationships, and recently we have launched a new messaging app called You&Methat’s made just for couples.
In a sense we’ve been trying to figure out how technology can enhance rather than deplete love.
Over this time I’ve heard countless stories of people’s search for deep, abiding love — their struggles and successes. I’ve also spent many days working with our data scientists to make sense of the patterns that emerge from millions of data points about how people — both single and in relationships — actually use technology in their hunt to find and keep love.
During this same time period, I have myself fallen in love.
I know a lot about the power of our screens, as walls that hinder connectedness and as windows into lasting closeness.
There is already a rather epic Internet history of designing for love.
From newspaper classifieds to 1970s video drop-off/pick-up dating services, to 90’s chat room love to kiss.com, to the niche brilliance of JDate, to long-distance lovers on Skype, to OkCupid’s free friend/enemy genius, to Zuck’s ‘relationship status’ invention, to love via Yelp commenting, to the awkward trend of LinkedIn pickup lines, to Grindr’s mobile path-blazing, to Foursquare stalking (I mean this in a more positive way than it sounds), to my site HowAboutWe’s “offline” dating movement, to couples FaceTiming from afar, to the high school flirt machine that is Kik, to Tinder’s explosion. Not to mention the thousands of wonderful and bold attempts to design for love that have ended in failure.
People have, for decades, understood the tremendous power that technology has to make love happen and to make that love richer.
And yet, I think we’re still in the early innings. Here are a handful of yet-to-be solved design challenges in the space of love:
Makers need to focus on making people feel even more comfortable privately sharing about themselves online. I would venture to say that it’s only in the last year that people became, en masse, really comfortable searching for love online. But this comfort level is thus far only photo-deep. Tinder, the herald of this sea change, hasn’t solved the profile problem. The result: a great hook-up app, but not a great love-finding app.
Matching: As we collect more and more data (particularly data about where people go on dates and when they make successful connections), we will have an exponentially stronger capacity to help people connect with the best possible partner.
Video: Seeing someone on video is obviously a better way to know if you’re going to actually like them. You get such a deep sense of someone’s nature by watching how they move. The trouble is, video — and particularly mobile video — generally makes people look far worse than they do in the flesh. This is a problem solvable by design.
Friends-Of-Friends-Of-Friends: This is an opportunity that hasn’t yet been truly figured out. Hinge is making a reasonable go at this. Matchmaking has a long tradition, but no one has yet created a marketplace dynamic around this; altruism is not generally the most motivating of forces. Design could change this.
Daily Life Connections: As we increasingly carry the Internet on our bodies, we’ll see more and more technology created to help us safely and non-sketchily cross the fear barrier on the subway platform or at the cafe.
Connecting IRL: It’s crazy that no dating app has yet nailed the booking of “first dates.” I believe that HowAboutWe is getting close. Grouper has made intriguing moves here. But no one has gotten this fully right yet.
Biological Data: Soon(ish) pheromonal and biological data points will be used to help make matching far more effective. Don’t think for a minute that our computers won’t soon know who we’ll really want when we meet face-to-face.
And so on…
Date Night: It’s my opinion that HowAboutWe for Couples has come closest to solving the problem of what to do on date night. Services like YPlan and Sosh offer curated activities, but not with a focus on dating and relationships. Otherwise, there is no app that really answers the proverbial question, “Honey, what are we going to do on Friday?” No app other than Netflix, that is.
Long-Distance: Staying close when far apart is a huge need for couples during travel and in long-distance relationships. The likes of FaceTime have started to solve this problem. Snapchat’s release this past week points, I think, to a new phase in video chat. But we have a long way to go. It’s no mistake that the biggest social network ever built was the acquirer of Oculus Rift; virtual reality is a likely contender as the design solution to geographic separation. (And I of course think that, in the meantime, couples could use a better messaging app.)
Keeping a Record: There’s no great solution yet for a couple to a keep a record of their story together – their road trips and adventures, their ups and downs, their lives.
Better Sex: Yes, I think tech can make sex better. No, I don’t know how yet!
Double Dates: There’s no great solution yet for couples who want to make new couple friends. No, no, not swingers. Real friendships among like-minded pairs. Hard problem. Totally unsolved.
Coordinating Daily Life: There are a hundred problems in daily life that haven’t been designed to be solved by two people. For example, take the simple problem of meeting up at X place. This is a problem couples experience more than any other group. There’s no app that let’s you share a live, “Uber-style” map with two coalescing dots. The little things end up being so much the stuff of love as it’s lived by real people; we should be able to design for these in ways that bring care and fun into our relationships.
Quantifying the Couple: As couples provide more and more data to their computers, we should be able to build experiences that give back to couples. For instance, presumably technology can help to identify, mediate and solve conflicts between two people who love each other. We’ll see how long this takes as it’s obviously extremely subtle; at some point, though, your computer will tell your husband and you to chill out and stop badgering each other.
It’s early. LoveTech is going to get better and better.
So how do you design for love? How should current and future makers think about creating products for love?
In my opinion, the key design principle to keep in mind is that we already know how to love. Accordingly, the job of technology products is to take what we already know about how to love and help us do those things better.
Two cases: Tinder and You&Me.
Case 1: Tinder
Tinder enhanced the very simple experience of making eyes across a bar. We already know how to do this. We’ve been doing this since we were fish in an infinite prehistoric ocean. But with Tinder it just got a whole lot more…effective.
- The Tinder team made it far more efficient (you can go through hundreds of profiles in minutes).
- They made it far safer through asynchronicity (you don’t have to be worried about making eyes first).
- They made it totally okay to change your mind (you don’t have to actually message once a mutual match is discovered).
- They made the conversation less awkward (because more people know how to text bravely than talk bravely).
They designed for…well, maybe not love. And it definitely has its flaws. But they definitely designed well for the hook-up part of loving.
Case 2: You&Me
You&Me is an iPhone app my team launched in the past month. It’s a messaging app for couples.
Existing mobile messaging apps are definitely taking a step in the right direction when it comes to enhancing love between two people. In fact, these days love is often sanctified over text. For the couple in their routine, texting is a repository of day-to-day connectedness. It’s how couples stay close. It’s how they fight. It’s how they sync up. It’s how a lot of humor — the great balm of love — happens. It’s even the bed of foreplay, here and there. Mobile messaging has been a huge innovation in couples communication.
And yet, when you talk to couples about their love lives (and we’ve talked to thousands of them), again and again they share their desire to be more in sync, to stay closer, to maintain the freshness.
Specifically, they often point to problems with digital communication. We have categorized those problems into a set of critiques of mobile texting apps — critiques we sought to address with You&Me. Here’s a summary:
First, texting apps don’t tell a story. The past is treated by messaging apps as though it’s irrelevant: the impossibility of effectively searching; the at-first-fun and later just-plain-annoying feeling of clicking “load earlier messages” ad infinitum; the absence of any repository of shared media; and so on. Texting is not a tool built for happy nostalgia, a staple of love.
Texting also limits communication. Photos and videos are treated like a pale afterthought. There are few to no other ways to share. It’s as if modern digital communication was being purposely strangled into a few very simple ways of talking. But we talk today in such richer ways: sharing music, collaborating on media, creating expressive (and hilarious) gif- and sticker-adorned images, engaging around location, making lists, and so on. This kind of rich communication is particularly prevalent between couples who have so much to share. Text is a dumb, restrictive tool, but love is smart and unbounded.
Texting is fundamentally unsocial. But the conversations we have with our partner are not purely private. They are private by default, but they have moments that we wish could live in a broader context — be it a group or a social network. This broader sharing creates a sense of connection, affirmation, and excitement. Texting as we currently know it is maniacally insular.
Texting is ugly. It’s either $19 billion dollars worth of aesthetic shame or — in the case of pure SMS — it’s just rudimentary ugly. And this goes beyond looks. There’s very little sense of context: of the setting in which a conversation took place, of the start and end to a conversation, of who we were at the time the conversation was happening. There is a kind of default stupidity in texting that’s quite limiting to the fullness of the conversation we have with our partner. Our most important conversation deserves the most beautiful interface.
Texting only works when you’re apart. In most cases, you spend a lot of time with your significant other. And yet, texting is focused purely on situations when you’re apart. What about when you’re together? How can you keep a record of the wonderful experiences you’re having together? Texting utterly fails at this kind of “together” experience.
Love is the best thing ever, and so we embrace texting alongside sleepless nights and less space and the loss of alone time and the inevitable daily compromises. We embrace it happily. But let’s be real: texting kinda sucks for love.
In the case of You&Me, the project was also a bit personal. While we were talking to hundreds of couples about how they communicate and surveying existing apps and building our own…I was falling in love with a wonderful woman.
And for this new love, I wanted an app that would let us share everything we wanted to share — the random hellos, the R.E.M. song I was listening to on my way to work, the post-gym logistics, the hilarious co-worker gossip, the weird singing lady outside the apartment that was mine and was becoming ours, our trip to Boston for my nephew’s birthday, a midday kiss from afar, my treadmill jog time, her with her father walking through the leaves, this picture of her face that I adore, the same picture with a panda sticker sitting on her head just because, reflections on a dumb fight we had, a Rilke poem I wanted her to hear me read, a link to a post about bitcoin flailing and me losing money like a dumbass, a keylime pie recipe that was going to make us hate ourselves for eating too much, a selfie video of us together traipsing happily through the New York City snow.
I wanted a better way to be in love, online. I wanted an app truly designed for people in love.
Whatever in the rather vast landscape of love you’re looking for, from a one-night stand to a life of ever-opening union, don’t fear technology.
Yes, you two should avoid sleeping with your phones in your bed. Yes, you should be wary of Internet dating photos that portend accuracy. Yes, you should avoid the potential pitfalls of love in the digital age.
But alongside this, you should fully embrace technology as a critical pillar of modern love. You should use technology to find and keep just what you’re looking for.
And if you are building for love, if you are designing for love — you should trust that we all already know how to love. Just make us better at it.
Love can, should, and will be so so sweet in the digital age.