Giving up the ghost: How Hinge disrupted online dating with data and helped users find love
In August of 2015, Vanity Fair ran an article castigating hookup culture. The author prophesized a “dating apocalypse” and decried the multifarious dating apps of the day. The article pointed a finger at, among others, Hinge for “swiping romance from the screen.”
Back then, Hinge’s app–just like Tinder and Bumble–allowed profile swiping, a feature inspired by slot machine gaming psychology and widely blamed for trivializing modern romance. But unlike the other giants of the day, Hinge was listening.
In a 2016 interview, Hinge founder and CEO Justin McLeod told Vanity Fair that its dating apocalypse article had spurred a rigorous interrogation of the value of swiping to Hinge’s users and its impact on their lives.
Ultimately, the Hinge team turned to the data to make their decision. “Only one in 500 Hinge swipes led to a phone number exchange, and 81 percent of Hinge users reported that they had never found a long-term relationship through a swiping app,” says Tim MacGougan, Chief Product Officer at Hinge.
Tim joined the product team right as Hinge’s leadership decided they needed to detoxify dating app culture and retool Hinge so it led to more relationships. By harnessing empathy and data, Tim and the team helped transform how relationships are formed online. In the process, Hinge helped more people connect with others, and ultimately accomplish the good type of churn they like to see–which is finding love on the app.
Communing with customers
While Hinge was filing for incorporation in 2011, Tim was working as a customer support agent at Bonobos, the retail startup that’s now become the largest apparel brand ever built on the web in the US. This role helped him realize a few important things about his burgeoning career in product, before he even realized he’d officially step into that career trajectory.
“At Bonobos, I fell in love with the scrappy startup-culture. It was eye-opening to see how teams would collaborate together and find an innovative solution for the good of the customer,” remembers Tim. Looking back, Tim realized he had a knack for quickly understanding a user’s experience and being able to anticipate what they’d care about along with their frustrations.
“It wasn’t that I just liked the process of untangling each problem; I also enjoyed providing the best solution based on what a person explicitly asked for, but also what I intuitively sensed would give them an overall better experience.”
Tim’s early work in customer service deeply informed his career in product. His keen focus on empathy wasn’t just a soft skill. Interpreting different signals, both qualitative feedback and quantitative data points, was the nuanced skill that helped him navigate his career as he transitioned from working at Bonobos to Hinge.
“Having a customer service background has advantages and disadvantages,” says Tim. “The upside is that you’re very in tune with real people and customers, not just statistics or theory. It makes you care a lot about individual feedback and that’s powerful.
“But, it also means you have to work twice as hard to connect those narratives with data. When interpreting streams of both qualitative and quantitative feedback on how users are enjoying your product, there’s definitely a balance to strike so you have a better gauge of accurate sentiment.” As many product teams can relate to, across industries, it’s not often that people write into a company just to share their glowing feedback. Users typically reach out to the company, often through Support, when they need to fix an issue.
But then there are moments in the real world where people who use the product rave about how they met their partner on the dating app. For Hinge, in particular, those moments of delight that people have on a day-to-day basis might not be expressed directly to the Product team, rather shared amongst friends, on social media, or in a more private setting. Even today, where ‘dating’ is synonymous with dating apps, matters of the heart are vulnerable ones.
“It’s easy to mistake a critical minority, for consensus. So with that in mind, it’s important to empathize with the frustration a user expresses, but it’s important to have greater perspective, too.”
Tim joined Hinge while the app still dabbled in–as he calls it–“the endemic superficiality of swiping apps.” But he was caught off guard by users’ sky-high expectations of him. “At my previous startup, we sold pants. Sometimes they’d rip, we’d offer a credit, and that was it,” recalls Tim. At Hinge, it was completely different. “Even with Hinge’s free Membership– even before there was the option to upgrade for the paid tier option– people cared intensely about what we did because it touched such a consequential part of their lives,”
That put pressure on the Hinge team to matchmake with greater accuracy, which required them to extract more meaningful data from the app to determine what made relationships last, and how to predict them. They’d also have to confront the industry-wide charges of superficiality head-on, which probably meant a redesign. These challenges landed on Tim’s desk.
Redesigning for relationships
Great dates, according to Tim, are a matter of timing and compatibility. But what Hinge grokked from the data and people’s primary experiences was that a true connection is difficult to discern from photos alone.
“There’s a lot of algorithmic complexity that goes into what we do,” says Tim. “If we were to recommend somebody that you’ll love, but they’ve been inactive for three months, it’s a great recommendation but a dating miss. We have to understand a lot more than just preferences.”
Hinge needed more data, so the team launched scrollable profiles that allowed users to add more information.
“In the first relaunch, we were rolling back what people saw as superficiality.” The team removed swiping and introduced content liking so users would reveal what they liked about a person beyond their picture. Users completed their profiles by uploading pictures, and then answering several prompts so they might better show, not tell, their personality.
“All this was aimed at solving the signal and noise problem—we wanted people to focus on their matches and not the next person. In the old swiping format, lots of people liked each other because they were curious if that person liked them, not out of actual interest. It wasn’t a strong indicator, and we wanted to make more meaningful matches.”
The team removed the element of anonymity so anyone could see who had liked them. And to provide another level of service, Hinge released a paid tier called Preferred. “We think of Preferred as being an accelerator for the people who are highly motivated to move quickly and find the people who are most compatible for them,” says Tim.
Those who opted for the Preferred service were granted access to unlimited likes to send to potential matches, access to Hinge Experts, and have the ability to narrow their preferences down more specifically with additional filters.
“Everything we do–the company’s goals, the product’s goals–it’s all measurable. All the features we release have metrics we expect them to impact. The most important element of that is that we choose problems we want to solve and the impact we want it to have based on statistical analysis.”
The team matches quantitative data from Mixpanel user analytics with qualitative data from focus groups and surveys. “These form the narratives for not just what is happening, but why it’s happening. Without the why, the data is meaningless because it isn’t actionable.”
Tim finds data to be the ultimate counterweight to his deep customer intuition. “My fear is that I’ll be persuasive, but wrong. It’s tough to really ever prove anything, especially in our product, which is such a complex ecosystem where everything affects everything. But good data, understood well, goes a long way toward being right.”
Throughout this process, and with each iterative change, the team monitored the data from users’ behavior. And with this user data came a wealth of insights on what people did and did not like about the app. This pushed the team to double-down on using that those insights to continue to redesign Hinge once again, into its current, beloved incarnation.
The second redesign addressed issues with retention, especially among new users. “We noticed there was reduced activity on the home screen—it showed a list of matches and likes, and we had gone too far toward pointing people to their matches.” The team changed the app homepage to a discovery feature where users would see new people each time they returned to the app.
The data also revealed why more connections weren’t proceeding as expected. “We found people were procrastinating on connecting with their incoming likes because all likes were displayed on one list.” Users would browse, pick some, and forget the rest. “Timing is important in dating. You have to strike while the iron is hot to have the best chance of a great date.”
Rather than allow likes to accumulate, the team switched to an interface where users were only shown one incoming like at a time. “It helps you decide on each one, so people are less passive and go on more dates.” They also found that even after users both liked each other, sometimes a stalemate would ensue.
“Let’s say I like your photo and you choose to connect with me. Now whose turn is it to start the chat?” asked Tim. “People didn’t always know, so we gave them a nudge with a feature called Your Turn which placed a badge on the initiator’s profile that indicates whose turn it is to start the chat.” Your Turn reduced stalemates by 13 percent.
The discoveries continued to roll in. The team launched two-way algorithmic recommendations that pair high-likelihood potential couples. They are currently building features to help learn from users’ offline experiences so the team can go deeper and test more theories.
All the while, they keep a pulse on what users say. “If we launch a new feature, I’ll always check in with the customer service team. I’ll ask them to tell us about any negative sentiment. The good result is that you hear nothing. But user analytics helps us monitor the whole ecosystem so we get both views.”
Building on successful building
Hinge launched its second redesign with a crystal clear goal—to be their users’ favorite dating app—and it paid off. In the past year, Hinge saw a 4x user growth. And when it came to new user retention that metric improved by 20 percent “basically overnight with that redesign,” says Tim.
While legacy swiping apps gamified dating at the cost of human connection, Hinge built for positive interactions that inspired more connections. This, in turn, generated higher retention because people came back to interact with other people they were actually interested in.
“We want to offer more connections and more dates. We have revenue, but that’s not a core goal of ours. The core product goals are two sides of the same coin: be effective in generating the right matches people can find new connections. But ultimately, Hinge wants to be loved, and the app of choice when people are seeking thoughtful connections.
Ultimately, “good churn”– people leaving the app because they found a relationship– has always been a company goal for Hinge. “Aside from the fact that we’re all caring people who genuinely want the best for our users, it’s actually a good thing if users quit the app for a relationship we helped form,” Tim explains.
“Those people are out in the real world constantly answer the first question most couples get: ‘How did you two meet?’ When they say Hinge, that is the most authentic marketing, referral, and driver of growth that there could be.”
“The reason I love working for Hinge is that it’s full of inspiring people tackling a meaningful problem in a thoughtful way. We focus as much on our process as we do on the product itself. We’re always learning and evolving how we work. That, really, is the heart and soul of what’s made the product successful.”
The experience Hinge created has been popular with users, but also the company’s competitors. In May of 2018, Facebook paid Hinge the ultimate flattery by announcing a future product called Dating which would live within Facebook’s app and website. This future product had an eerily similar UX and feature set as Hinge’s. Then, one month later, IAC, the dating conglomerate whose portfolio comprises nearly every major dating app, including Match.com, Tinder, and OKCupid, acquired a controlling stake in Hinge.
“We had to disrupt ourselves,” Joey Levin, CEO of IAC told reporters. “Hinge seems to be getting real traction with a very interesting audience. It’s a truly great product.”