Wireframe S2 Episode 6: Falling in Love with Good Design

“Falling in Love with Good Design” by Lucas Wakamatsu

Our sixth installment of season two of “Wireframe” is here, and it’s all about a topic that I knew absolutely nothing about at the outset: the world of dating apps.

Well to be clear, I did know that dating apps have become mandatory for single people, and also that Tinder’s card swipe interaction has become the reference point for how users of these apps think about the people they encounter within. From that starting point, the episode then asks whether the UX of dating apps are truly trying to help people find their ideal matches, or whether they’re actually just trying to keep people in the app, swiping endlessly.

Listen to it below or subscribe in your favorite podcast player.

As I mentioned, this world is more or less completely foreign to me. I started dating my wife before “the apps” (as they’re colloquially referred to, I learned) really took hold. Of course, there were dating web sites before that, but I never really used those either. So this episode was a real crash course in how a nontrivial aspect of modern living has been materially impacted by user experience design.

Actually, during the pitch stage of this season, I was skeptical about whether dating apps were really a design story; to me they just seemed like a tech story—the ubiquity of mobile technology over the past dozen years had “eaten” the dating market. But in the course of producing the episode, I was quickly disabused of that illusion. Design matters deeply in these apps because, in a crowded market, the experience of finding someone is exactly the differentiator that helps one app stand out from the others.

As we talked to the people behind apps like Bounce, Hinge and HER, it became clear how commoditized dating tech is, and how much each app relies on some novel twist in the interface or some carefully crafted constraint in the interaction in order to increase the likelihood of success. It was thoroughly fascinating to explore this world—and, I’ll admit, a bit of a reminder of how brutal the dating experience can be. Many people regret the transactional nature of dating as mediated by these apps, and I certainly empathize with that point. But dating has always been terrible for most people, and technology hasn’t been able to fundamentally change that.

This is ostensibly our final episode of the season (though we have a bonus entry coming soon—not next week, but not long afterwards). So it’s fitting to note that the point I made about my initial reluctance to dive into this topic of dating apps is a great illustration of my experience—not just as the host but also as an editorial collaborator.

The vast majority of the research and reporting for “Wireframe” is done by the amazing team of producers at Gimlet Creative. They’re incredibly talented but they’re not design specialists. They’re generalists in fact, and have trained in how to create podcasts that appeal to general audiences. My role is to try and steer the stories we develop so that they’re as design-oriented as possible.

One of the things that I’ve found is that it’s often easy to mistake a tech story for a design story, because the latter is so closely tied to the former. So when the producers and I look at an episode idea, what we try to do is ask whether that story could be told without designers or without looking at the interactions that are key to that particular category of technology. If design can be dispensed with in the narrative, then it’s probably not a design story.

In retrospect it’s clear that design is indispensable to the story of dating apps. The fact that I initially missed its inherent importance was a bit embarrassing, but it was also an instructive moment for me. First, it underscored for me how little I knew about this space—I mean, I knew I didn’t know a lot, but I really knew nothing. And second, it showed me that design really is everywhere. I mean, of course that’s something that I already believed and readily tell people all the time, but sometimes it’s really revelatory to find design “hiding” someplace that not even a designer suspects it might be.

And third, it brought home for me how valuable the combination of design and editorial can be. Giving credit where it’s due, it was the Gimlet producers who insisted that this had the makings of an episode, and their persistence was proven right. Honestly, given how interesting this episode was to create, and hopefully how interesting it is for you to listen to, this is one of those times when I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.

My collaboration with this production team has been the funnest thing about producing these shows. That’s not just because they’re smart, funny and personable (they are), but also because of how design comes alive for me in a new way when a rigorous editorial lens is applied to it. I often talk about how important it is for designers to articulate what it is we do in a way that’s understandable and relatable to everyone, those who already understand design and also general audiences who can benefit from a better understanding of design. In the case of this episode, and really, when I think about it, in just about every episode we’ve produced over two seasons, the mere act of putting these stories together has benefitted me tremendously as a designer and as someone who’s always looking to understand design better. And it just wouldn’t have been this way without our partnership with Gimlet.

I hope you’ve enjoyed season two. As I mentioned, stay tuned for a bonus episode soon. And please subscribe and tell a friend about the show. We hope to be back with season three before too long.

As with each episode, there’s plenty more background on this topic in a companion blog post at Adobe. If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast produced by Adobe and Gimlet Creative and hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via heavily researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. If you liked today’s episode, be sure to check out all six of the installments from our first season as well.

Art by Lucas Wakamatsu, who has illustrated each episode of this season.