4 Design Lessons From Tinder, The White-Hot Dating App

In less than a year, Tinder has generated 20 million matches. Here’s how.


I’m swiping through photos of beautiful women on my phone. Within 30 seconds, I’ve stalked at least 10 within a 50-mile radius of where I currently stand. We have no friends in common, but somehow, theoretically, they’re tangentially connected to me–maybe it’s through a friend of a friend, maybe we both just like The Notebook and the White Sox.


Most are too young–20 to my 30–but that doesn’t need to stop me. If I want, I’m just a heart-button away from a potential match.

This all might sound creepy. (Especially as I’m married, and testing this app only with permission!) But it’s also the highly viral interaction behind Tinder–a mobile app that scours your geolocation and Facebook friends to suggest potential datables in your sphere. And whether this fast-fueled flirting is creepy or not, it most certainly is fair. Because just by joining Tinder, I’ve put my own face on the chopping block of snap judgement.

Much like Bang with Friends, no one knows if you’ve shown interest–notifications aren’t sent to the objects of your admiration unless the feeling is mutual. So there’s no real risk to using Tinder, even though some have pigeonholed it as Hot-or-Not or Grindr. It’s only if someone likes you, too, that any match is made.

I talked to Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen to dissect the design philosophies behind their meteoric app, which has generated 20 million matches since September. Here’s what they said:


1. Invent, Borrow and Steal To Manage User Expectations

The old aphorism “you need to know the rules in order to break them” is an idea at the very core of Tinder’s approach to design in your pocket.

“It’s important to understand that when you’re designing a product for mobile, the behavior for mobile–and the rules and expectations for users–are very different than on the web,” Rad says. “If you think about it, ease of use–that’s set by other apps in your space.”

Such a principle might sound obvious. But to Tinder, those other apps in their space aren’t just the other dating apps they compete with directly. They’re any apps that intersect with any of Tinder’s functionality. So whether it’s iMessage (for Tinder’s in-app messaging) or Facebook (for Tinder’s in-app profiles), they’re cognizant of user expectations for each of these experiences, and they set the bar at least that high. And in many cases, that bar might not be something worth trying to leap over.

“We don’t want to create foreign experiences, we want to create experiences people relate to,” Rad says. “Sometimes that involves taking a very, very extreme and unique approach on design, and sometimes that just involves … taking the expectations people have in other apps.”


2. Don’t Make A New Experience–Simplify A Real-Life Experience

Some have deemed Tinder superficial, because its core interaction is a list of faces that you yay or nay. And in fact, it is superficial. It’s designed to be superficial, at first, because life is superficial.

“We want to create experiences that emulate human behavior. What we do on Tinder is no different than what we already do,” Rad says. “You see somebody. You start with their face. If you find a connection, you continue to understand, ‘what are our common interests, our social groups?’ You’re trying to create validation. From there, you open a dialog. Where that goes is up to a person.”

It very hard to argue with that breakdown of our social behavior, and Tinder emulates it digitally. You see someone’s face. You click into their profile. If you like them and they like you, you begin a conversation over messaging. It just so happens that Tinder handles this whole process with the speed and efficiency of digital infrastructure rather than, say, analog vodka.


3. Track What Users Are Doing To Avoid Feature Creep

Tinder might design from the gut–from what people expect and what they seem to do–but they iterate from the brain. Every aspect of their spartan featureset is tracked. And they never launch a new feature without proper API tracking in place.

“It’s very important for us to understand how users are using different aspects of the app. That, in combination with just listening to users, helps you understand what’s important to focus on next and avoid feature creep,” Rad says. “Feature creep happens when you’re designing and moving forward aimlessly. For us, everything we do is very calculated.”

Rad later tells me that Tinder has a lot of clones. Some are from bigger companies, while others are from smaller ones. And ironically, where they fall short is in stacking too many features on top of the core experience.


“What they don’t understand is, the lack of functionality is what makes Tinder’s narrative,” he says.

4. Limit User Customization To Solidify Trust

None of this would matter, however, if people didn’t trust Tinder–that the faces they were liking were real, that the interests those faces had were true.

“How you feel, that trust, is critical to you engaging with the app,” Rad says. “You’re not going to message someone if you don’t trust you’re not messaging a creep. You’re not going to continue a conversation if Tinder hasn’t helped you establish a level of trust and authenticity.”


To develop trust, Tinder uses Facebook. Your photos and interests can’t be created inside the app. Instead, they’re sucked in automatically from your existing profile. Data can still be faked, of course, but it won’t be faked specifically inside of Tinder (as it can be on various dating apps). If you’re lying on Tinder, you’re lying to the world.

Facebook also allows Tinder to begin with a circle of people you might know (or at least know of). And when you view a potential match, you see your mutual friends right below their face. These avatars tacitly vouch for the person–just like friends might in real life, were you brave enough to make the inquiry.

So while Tinder has their own secret algorithms working behind the scenes to offer their users the best matches possible, it’s a slew of front-end decisions that have made the app so addictive for young daters. In fact, 80% percent of users return to the app each week, and 65% of users return to it each day. If Tinder is superficial, then perhaps we have no one to blame for that but ourselves.

Try it here.

[Illustration: Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach