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Swipe Left, Swipe Right, But Why?

Tinder-inspired apps have exploded, letting users swipe yes to dogs, shoes, and threesomes. But does it work for every company?

Swipe Left, Swipe Right, But Why?
[Closeup hand typing: patpitchaya via Shutterstock]

Swipe left. Swipe right. It’s such a small gesture that packs such a big punch.

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After Tinder launched about two years ago, its dead-simple user interface helped propel the app–and its interface–into the realm of pop culture artifact. The swipe-yes-or-no design has been adopted by apps offering everything from employment to puppies to threesomes, rapidly becoming as familiar a part of the mobile ecosystem as the checkbox is to the web.

But while Tinder’s widespread media attention and viral growth helped make swiping mainstream, being a “Tinder for X” does not necessarily mean instant success. The swipe design’s close ties to the app can make other swiping products seem less than serious. (After all, Tinder’s interface initially drew for making romantic interactions feel shallow). As startups look to become more than just novelty Tinder clones, they’re working to turn swipes into meaningful recommendations and adopt other features that set them apart from an increasingly swipe-covered field.

This begs the question: What is the meaning, exactly, of the swipe?

“I really see the Tinder swipe as a UI pattern, more than anything else,” says Chris Calmeyn, a cofounder of professional social networking firm Caliber. “It’s just a great way to process information quickly.”

Founded in 2013, Caliber uses the swipe UI to bring together people interested in building business connections. Calmeyn says the Tinder-style mechanism was originally proposed jokingly after Tinder’s soaring popularity at the time, but it turned out that, as on Tinder, only pairing users who both expressed interest in each other made users more comfortable looking to connect with relative strangers.

“That’s just as valuable in a new professional relationship as it is in dating,” he says.

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But unlike Tinder, Caliber aims to emphasize users’ professional connections and achievements, not their looks.

“Tinder can be so visceral–it’s really just about attraction,” something not appropriate to a business app, says Calmeyn. “It’s really more about what the person has done–what they care about and who they want to meet.”

Still, the relative informality of the swipe approach can make the app more appealing than alternatives such as LinkedIn. “It can be sporadic–be something that you go back to, but we really want it to be lightweight,” he says.

That view is echoed by TJ Nahigian, the CEO of Jobr, which lets users swipe their way through potential job opportunities. If a potential candidate swipes yes to a posting, and a recruiter or hiring manager swipes yes to him or her, they’re paired for a chat.

Nahigian says the casual feel of the swipe UI helps attract potential employees who might not have filled out a complete formal application. “When you have a few minutes to kill, it’s sort of an easy and enjoyable way to explore your career opportunities,” he says. “Chatting is also important in that regard as well–you can have a casual conversation with the recruiter wherever you are.”

Ironically, the informality of the app interface actually led Jobr’s recruiter clients to request an old-fashioned web version, so their employers didn’t watch them spending their work days swiping at their phones, he says. Either way, as users swipe or click through postings, they can be better matched with jobs or candidates they’ll be interested in, says Nahigian. “There’s a pretty important algorithm that we use in order to show candidates the right job opportunities, and recruiters or hiring managers the right candidates for roles,” he says.

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Similar algorithms can help in other apps when users are swiping to pick products that can’t swipe back, says Jeremy Callahan, the founder of Shoe Swipe, which lets users swipe yea or nay to shoes. “It knows the difference between a high heel and a wedge or a flat, and it knows color as well,” Callahan says of his app. “I’d say about 9% of the shoes we’re showing people right now are added to their favorites.”

Callahan says users generally seem to immediately understand the interface, which lets them swipe or tap yes or no to a given pair of shoes.

“I haven’t gotten any support type of emails–I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” he says.

Still, he says, later versions of the app will likely add features beyond the simple swipe to keep users coming back, such as notifications letting bargain seekers know when a bookmarked pair of shoes goes on sale, he says.

Generally, using a swipe interface lets app developers very rapidly determine what their customers are interested in without making them fill out dull and discouraging web forms, says Henrik Werdelin, the cofounder of Bark & Co.

Bark & Co is probably best known for BarkBox, a subscription service delivering a monthly package of canine-centric products, but the company also operates BarkBuddy, which matches would-be dog owners with adoptable animals.

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“I think as a product designer one of our challenges is how can we make sure that people get into the product as quickly as possible,” he says. “We thought that it is an incredibly useful method for looking at a number of different dogs, but really what it also allowed us to do is create an algorithm on the backend to present more dogs that you like.”

That’s faster than making users fill out forms to see the kinds of dogs they’re interested in, he says, a process that can be daunting, especially since many rescue dogs don’t fit cleanly into one breed.

“One of the challenges we’ve seen in the dog rescue community is that it can be a little complicated to use the sites that are available,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who actually get really into the idea of adopting a dog, but they either don’t know how to or they think it’s too difficult.”

Simplicity was also a big motivation for Dimo Trifonov, the founder of 3nder, which matches individuals or couples with others looking for ménages à trois. Prior to 3nder, couples had to post profiles that didn’t fit cleanly into conventional dating sites, or turn to personals sections on Craigslist or sleazier sites, he says.

“I don’t know how many of those are real, how many are serial killers,” he says. “We give this elegant interface and elegant way to communicate with people without disturbing them.” That’s something 3nder’s privacy- and safety-conscious clients appreciate about the interface requiring both sides to swipe yes, he says.

With a design background, Trifonov’s worked to make the app seem elegant and classy, he says, even when it means breaking traditional design patterns. Notifications show up as a glowing menu bar inspired by the movie Her–not as an alert icon or flashing number as on other messaging apps–and the messaging interface is full-screen, not a Tinder-style narrow text box at the bottom of the screen, he says.

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“When you send a message you have this full screen where you can type your message, and people were really confused because you have this big type,” he says. “It’s a small thing, but I think it’s creating meaningful conversations.”

The simplicity of the underlying swipe interface and the volume of user data it generates make it easy to iterate on other features, developers say.

CoffeeMe, a business-networking swipe app, got its start at a bachelor party hackathon, says cofounder Hsu Ken Ooi.

“When I first built it, I wasn’t sure how often people were going to say yes,” he says. “If people say yes [to connecting with other users] 1% of the time, there’s probably not a product here.”

But the app, which is currently limited to approved users in the Bay Area startup world, saw a much higher rate of users approving one another and of actually making contact, he says.

“That’s how I track the health of the product,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to build a product where we’re making a lot of introductions, but nobody actually talks to each other on there.” The swipe, it seems, can only take you so far.

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About the author

Steven Melendez is an independent journalist living in New Orleans.

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