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In April, BuzzFeed News reported that Grindr — the ubiquitous app for queer men — gave away data to other companies, including data about users’ HIV status and when they were last tested. This resulted in an uproar, and the app announced several days later that it would no longer share such sensitive information.
As a queer woman, I’ve never used Grindr myself. That being said, I’m single, in my twenties, and live in New York City; needless to say, I’m no stranger to other dating apps. What’s more, I date women and men (and nonbinary people), so I’m familiar with just about everything else in the market. The Grindr controversy made me think about online dating and how app UX and design affect its users — especially queer users, and especially queer women.
I’ve known for quite some time that there is no “female” counterpart to Grindr, but I wanted to find out why.
I spoke with Robyn Exton, founder of the app HER, who told me that there wasn’t really a market for a queer-women Grindr — and hadn’t been for quite some time. What users responded to, she discovered, was the opportunity to find a larger LGBTQ community.
HER is a reincarnation of Exton’s original app, the now-defunct Dattch, and is targeted at queer women and nonbinary people. It prides itself on being the largest online dating community for lesbian, bisexual, and queer people.
But it wasn’t always all that different from the competition. “[Dattch] used to operate like existing models; it was very much like Grindr…It completely didn’t work for our user base,” Exton told me. “[It had a] really low interaction rate, low conversation rate, and it wasn’t creating a good experience.”
Dattch had the same look and feel as Grindr in terms of discovery and profiles: a grid of users, stripped-back profiles, one profile picture, and a few lines of text.
In 2013, Dattch also introduced a “Would You Rather” feature as a sort of twist to a “hot or not” model that other apps employ. As evidenced by the screenshot above, the app would ask the user if they would rather choose another user or an activity, like eating pizza. In 2016 Dattch still had the “Would You Rather” option; it was presumably scrapped after the HER rebrand.
Even in its most Grindr-like iteration, however, there was one major difference: Dattch didn’t pinpoint users’ locations like Grindr does (sometimes to the feet). Instead, the app “scrambled” users’ locations, which means other users could not see each other’s exact location. Dattch/HER users didn’t seem to care about specific locations the way other app users did.
“The reason it’s important on other platforms is that they’re looking to meet up very quickly,” Exton told me. “In apps like Grindr, the average meetup time is, I think, two hours. For our users, the average meetup time is over seven days.”
This may alleviate some concerns women and nonbinary users have about sharing their location, as the Grindr model of hyperspecific locations can put their safety at risk. The apps I use — like Tinder, for example — don’t get super-specific, but it can still be jarring to see someone is “one mile away” (which is as close as the app tells you). After all, women and nonbinary users may not want to be so easy to track down.
What made Exton remodel Dattch into HER was that users weren’t using the original app to hook up. They were using it to find their “person” — whatever that may be for them. Some users just used the app to chat, even if they were thousands of miles away from each other or even separated by an ocean or two.
“The majority [of our users] are using it for a more social or friendship connection,” Exton said. “Connections can often be, say, people in long-term relationships looking for other queer friends. Or some people who have relocated, or they might be traveling, and they’re using it to find out what’s happening in an area that they’re going to.”
The social element of HER has bled into “real life,” with events and parties. “[We host and support] LGBTQ events,” Exton said. She and her employees are always asking themselves how they help users find these parties and foster them. “We think that’s a really important part of the queer community, and we want to support the people in the community who created these events. I’m thinking about like what kind of technology and services will help them promote and get people to these parties.”
HER has had parties in 25 cities, with 400 to 1,000 people at each event. Grindr is almost isolated, meant for interactions between two people at any given time. The only “real life” component is the endgame of most of these interactions: a hookup.
HER has resulted in marriages, babies, groups of friends coming together — so I think it’s safe to assume a fair amount of hookups have occurred as well. But that’s not the endgame of HER; even when it was Dattch, that’s not what users wanted.
On a dating app, your profile signals more than just who you are — the design of each app’s profile says something about how people are using the service. For example, Grindr’s minimalistic profile model was put in place because it’s primarily a means to hook up with others, presumably for a one-time thing.
Like Grindr, Dattch didn’t have much information about the user. But HER now features something no other dating app does: a sort of pinboard profile where users can post different types of media.
“When we first did it, we found out that people are pretty bad at describing themselves, so we made [profiles like] a pinboard — you can write text, bring photos in from Instagram, Facebook, their camera roll,” Exton said. “Some people find it easier to describe themselves through imagery than through texts.”
This is certainly a departure not just from Grindr, but most other dating apps. Some, like Tinder and Bumble, have users add photos and create a “bio” of their choosing (or none at all); there’s also an option to integrate an Instagram profile, which shows up as a separate “Instagram” section. Then there are others, like OKCupid and Hinge, that have users answer a series of questions. But none of them adopt this vision board–like design.
The pinboard approach seems to be resonating with queer women and nonbinary folks much more than Grindr’s minimalist design or Tinder’s photo-centric swiping culture. HER has seen its users succeed the most when their profiles include several items — seven or eight is the ideal, according to Exton.
While HER does have a swiping feature that’s now ubiquitous among dating apps, there is a twist. One can swipe right, but also add them as a friend, say like on Facebook, if they’re not looking for a partner. Since HER users can be looking for a variety of things beyond a partner — friends, fellow couples, a community — the classic “hot or not” swipe model doesn’t quite fit. As of May 2018, HER once again rebranded, this time to be more inclusive to all its users, with the tagline “Womxn for Womxn.” The old logo featured a “hidden” (presumably cis) woman’s pelvis as the “E”, while the new one features an “E” with four bars to represent fluidity. Its features are by-and-large the same.
I applaud Exton and the HER team for being mindful of every type of user. But as a user myself, it does get dizzying, if not frustrating, to see new features pop up all the time—especially because I just want a freakin’ date. HER, however, remains the biggest app targeted for queer women (womxn), and I understand that Exton and her team are fine-tuning the app to be what the majority of its users, not just me, want HER to be.
Granted, apps marketed primarily to those looking for heterosexual relationships — Tinder, Bumble, and OKCupid, to name a few — do offer settings for users who, like me, are not straight. On Tinder and Bumble, I merely toggle the option to see both men and women.
There are inherent flaws in this approach, though. For one, this setting does connect me with real queer women; it does connect me with plenty of straight women who have only toggled the “women” option to find someone to have a threesome with their boyfriend. I’ve seen users get so frustrated with this that they’ve cluttered their profiles with statements like, “I am NOT interested in a threesome with you and your ugly boyfriend.” Harsh, but I’ve seen this sentence almost verbatim dozens of times. It’s a frustrating reality of trying to use apps targeted first and foremost at heterosexual users.
For another, if the user is in a less-populous area, they won’t get very far looking for queer people on an app like OKCupid. I am lucky: I live in New York City. Women who love women abound and are able to be more open than those in other areas of the country. In less-populated areas, it may be difficult to find anyone on dating apps, let alone queer people.
No app is going to be perfect. For someone looking for a queer community, they can find a home at HER; for someone genuinely seeking a “female Grindr,” they’ll have to wait for another app to pop up and take Dattch’s place. For a person wanting a connection via Tinder, they may have to weed through fake profiles for a long time. It’s certainly possible to find fellow queer people when swiping through “hetero-first” apps; I’ve been on some wonderful queer Tinder dates. But I’ve also experienced fake-queer profiles that turn out to be “couples seeking threesomes,” or women wanting to promote a club or their business, or catfishing profiles using model photos. This is par for the course of online dating, but still discouraging.
The internet changes daily, so of course dating on the internet does, too. With Facebook’s big announcement that it will soon offer a dating feature, this arena will continue to shift. The UX of Tinder, Grindr, HER, the upcoming Facebook Dating — they all have real impacts on real people. As technology burrows itself further and further into our love lives, I can only hope that the app creators of the future are constantly and thoughtfully tinkering with UX and design to better suit their users’ needs, instead of doing what Grindr did: using these needs, the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, for profit.