Independent Project advised by Arianna Mazzeo and Kit Parker

Master in Design Engineering Thesis Project

Harvard University

Sep 2019 - May 2020

an app for encounters

For this project, I studied relationships in the digital world by investigating the way technological devices are shaping social encounters, interactions and expectations. I am leveraging user research, usability testing, UI sketching, visual design, journey mapping, prototyping and user experience design to develop a strategy for a new type of technologically triggered social encounter.

rethinking relationships & social interaction systems

*Updated interface coming soon

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PROBLEM

Over the past few decades, technology has redefined the way people meet, interact and develop relationships. With more than 25 million people in the US actively using dating apps in 2019, technology has made it extremely simple for its users to meet people from the comfort of their couch. However, according to the Pew Research Center, these new ways of triggering encounters seem to be frustrating to more than 45% of their users.

PROCESS

When dissecting the users’ behaviors, acceptance and validation emerge as the ultimate needs they are trying to satisfy. These manifest themselves differently from one person to the other, often creating a mismatch in expectations. From a systemic viewpoint, the superficial generic profiles results in a lack of involvement in user journey.

SOLUTION

I propose a disruptive strategy to create new types of social encounters, where your profile is designed to depict your lifestyle rather than your looks. As a user, you get the power to shape your experience while preserving the spontaneity of the encounter. When you go online, you select the type of encounter and activity that you are looking for. Matching happens instantly: you get presented with online users who are available now, in your immediate area, with similar expectations.

 

Phase 1 - Background Research

TECHNOLOGY AND RELATIONSHIPS

I started looking at the different ways technology allows you to connect people together. I broke it down into 4 purposes of why people interact with each other on these platforms from the ones that are solely happening online, to the ones that allow for a real life encounter. 

If we look at media sharing whether it is videos, news, opinions, photos, thoughts, ideas or anything in between, it very often allows for a one sided online interaction between the person sharing the content and the people consuming the content. Similarly, social networking is very often more likely to happen online. If you think of the friends you have on facebook, or the network you built on linked in, you interact with a very small portion of these people in real life. Dating apps however, allow for people to actually meet in real life. The users get connected to people around them, and take action on that connection to set up a real life meeting with that person.

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LOOKING AT THE DATING LANDSCAPE

I investigated dating apps and meeting platforms to better understand how we can connect people in order for them to meet and interact in real life. Dating apps are the closest meaningful precedent for a platform that creates inorganic encounters. The 18-34 years old category has witnessed a significant growth in the number of people not having a steady partner over the past 40 years. Over the past decade, the love industry has witnessed a huge change in the way people meet. With the advance of technology and the rising use of these devices that inhabit our hands, pockets and bags, people can now meet the love of their lives with the simple swipe of a picture, they can make new friends by clicking on a button, and can share every single moment of their lives with millions of people across the globe.

Percentage of the US population with no steady partner in 1985 and 2019

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+25M  people in the United States actively used dating apps in 2019

source: statista

~45%  of online daters say using these platforms made them feel frustrated

source: pew research center

My research focused on what these apps were doing wrong to better understand why they are so popular, yet create so much frustration. The first step of my research was to get immersed in this environment myself, so I downloaded a few dating apps, created profiles for most of them, and started swiping. 

The first obvious insight I stumbled upon and that I think everyone must have noticed is the way dating apps profiles (and very similarly social profiles) ask us to describe ourselves in an extremely superficial way, using photos as the main representation of who we are, and who we decide to interact with. A big part of our identity is lost in these profiles, and they fail to represent who we are as humans, what we like, dislike, what our lifestyle is like, what type of person we are, how we interact in social contexts, what our expectations, wants or needs are, etc.

 

Phase 2 - User Research

INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS & ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH

Tapping into my network of classmates and friends it was easy to find users to interview and to research in my circles., I was able to talk to more than 80 people about their experience on meeting apps as well as observing them use those apps which has greatly informed me on the user experience. To further confirm these findings, I have mapped out the journey of one of the users that I found insightful and relevant to understanding the impacts social interactions have on your emotional state and what are the pain points someone goes through when they try to meet someone new.

JOURNEY MAPPING

Sami is currently a second year Architecture student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Growing up in Lebanon, Sami found it very hard to be open about his sexuality and further down the road, get into a relationship. However he never gave up, and went on more than 50 dates in the timespan of 2 years. Due to the taboos of the society, and the lack of tolerance and openness, Sami was very eager to leave his country and finally move to the United States to fully embrace his true identity. Sami’s dream is to find love, and be loved.

When Sami moved to Cambridge, his expectations of dating were crushed. He joined LGBTQ+ groups, went out to gay clubs, was socially active and friendly attending as many events as possible and mingling with everyone he knew or even did not know, but he did not find anyone appropriate. He decided to experience dating apps, but that process made him feel even worse about himself. Take a look at the journey map below that better explains his experience..

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SOCIAL EXPERIMENT

I had 25 people participate in this experiment where approximately half of them were male and the other half were female with a mix of different sexual orientations. Participants were on average 26 years old.

The experiment consisted in having one on one sessions with people first asking them about who they are, about what they are looking for, their interactions, how open they are to interactions, and lastly asked them a question about how they perceive themselves on the topic of spontaneity. Once we were done with the interview, I asked them perform a spontaneous action to see if their words match their actions. Let's take a look at the main insights that came out of it.

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USER PERSONAS

After talking to dozens of people, I started understanding my target user, and identifying exactly what they need from the product I am designing. I explored some personas of potential users of my platform that I will walk you through.

Meet Miziana, the sensation seeker.

She is an extrovert, gets energized by people and people who know her well will say that she loves to be silly. As an urban technologist, she has at balance of creativity and analytic skills. Miziana is a morning person, her first coffee is her favorite time of the day. She loves keeping her house organized and neat and is always down to meet up with friends whether it is for partying or for chilling. Miziana spends most of her time outside home, and with people, but she has found it hard to meet new people in her everyday life because of the social constructs that are followed by people around her. Technology has made human encounters so calculated that Miziana thinks it has become very hard to find serendipitous moments.

Meet Sami, the shy extrovert.

Sami loves dancing. He is on the lookout for human contact and attends all the social events that he know of. But this is still not enough for him, so when he is bored he goes on Tinder, on Hinge and on Grindr to easily meet people from the comfort of his screen and go out. Sami hates the morning, he never wakes up before 10am and is extremely stubborn about what he likes eating and the way he dresses. In his free time, he watches documentaries. He planned his whole life to reach his ultimate goal of moving to New York City and work there as an architect. Sami finds it hard to meet new people, and struggles when people reject his invitations to go out. Sami resorts to dating apps because he feels protected and safe from rejection behind his screen.

IN DEPTH INTERVIEWS

Next, I conducted extensive and in depth interviews with 4 users trying to better understand their actions, their feelings and their needs. The interview was structured into 5 parts. 

1 - Demographics: who they are.

2 - Context questions: needs and desires, experience with dating apps, impressions and feelings towards it, ZMET method.

3 - Process questions: in depth understanding to the user journey from the app selection to the dating.

4 - Current situation: assess involvement levels, profile curation, relevance of people on apps, match satisfaction,

5- Open ended questions about real life vs online interactions, expectation matching, and profile building.

In part 3, when I asked the users to map their journey through meeting apps, a lot of feelings and emotions were expressed. This leads me to think that this process is very emotionally charged and can have a very big impact on the way people feel while using them. But let me synthesize my findings into a more coherent whole.

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SYSTEM MAPPING

I created a system map representing how people identify and behave on these apps.  There are two parallel tracks: the first one about one’s identity that is shown through their profiles and the second one about people’s behavior which is a depiction of the matching process. 

The ultimate goal people want to achieve on these apps, is to feel accepted and validated. In my user research, it has come up a lot indirectly and some people have been extremely blunt and honest about it. In order to reach that, people put on a mask which has been described by Goffman (a canadian sociologist who investigated how people present theirselves in the everyday life) as a social face to represent how they want to be perceived by others. The society exerts a pressure on people defining what is acceptable or desired and what is not, so people end up showing the side of them that fits in the society or that the society perceives as good, rather than who they really are. The profiles become more and more generic leading to a lack of differentiation between people and this creates the feeling of anxiousness in people and the need for something real, something human that also has flaws. 

Now if we take a look at the ultimate goal people want from a behavioral perspective, they are looking to find a meaningful connection. This lead them to swiping a lot on these apps when presented with other people maximizing the amount of matches they get, with the option to be able to filter later. This leads to automation and a decrease in involvement level as well as carelessness when swiping on those apps. You get a lot of matches, but most of them are insignificant, not what you are looking for, or not good enough for you to go through the effort to push it further. This results in a wasted time and momentum and makes the user feel frustrated and hopeless. This feeling further exacerbates the need for acceptance and validation which pushes people to feel the need for a meaningful connection. And the loop goes on. So now that we know all of this, I looked at a design intervention that tackles the system as a whole rather than intervene in very specific points. I look at how I can change these actions, but as well avoid the consequences whether emotional or not of the unconscious actions that are taken in order to reach the ultimate goals.

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RESEARCH QUESTIONS

All the research deep dive allowed me to comprehend my users, define the problem, and ask the right questions that need to be answered through my design. The two questions that my project responds to are the following:

1- How might we reinforce identity to provide acceptance and validation and eliminate socially-constructed ideals present in profiles? 

2- How might we disrupt unconscious automated behaviors to lead to more meaningful encounters and better align expectations?

SYNTHESIS

The problem is systemic and multi-scalar. I looked at it from 3 different perspectives:

The first one being the systemic perspective related to the journey of the user, where we can notice a lack of involvement in the experience. boring texts that create a loss of interest, and an online experience that dwells too long leading to a loss of momentum. Second, I look at the process of matching. It is quite superficial, most of the matches are insignificant, and people treat matches as if they were just contact cards rather than humans. And third, I approach the problem from a more narrow lens which is the user's profile. Here, one can notice the lack of depth, a generic representation where the socially constructed ideals are always present, and a lack of authenticity where people try to be their best selves which rarely describes who they really are. The hypothesis that I tested through my research is that by shifting the interaction from online to the real life, by connecting people with aligned expectations and by curating online profiles based on new elements, we can disrupt the journey, create more meaningful matches and build more authentic profiles that can lead to richer and more significant relationships and connections on the longer term.

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INTRODUCING BUMP

 

Phase 3 - Prototyping

INITIAL WIREFRAMING

Going back to the development of bump, let's take a look at how the prototyping phase unfolded. 

The wireframing of the user flow helped me define the skeleton needed for the platform that I am building. Below is a very early stage wireframe that I used to look at the onboarding of someone on the app and the types of experiences that they can choose from.

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UX DESIGN

The UX/UI work was very iterative and informed by the users. I asked for feedback from my users and was able to iterate the designs to improve the following criteria:

  • how the user moves around the app

  • smoother wire framing

  • importance of information (would share, would not share, want to know, don’t want to know)

  • ease of understanding

  • desirability

  • what would they have expected vs what they are presented with

  • what they would want to have that is not present

  • what they think is irrelevant

  • branding, colors and ease of association with the platform

Below are a few explorations I looked at along the way.

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PRODUCT REQUIREMENT DOCUMENT

 

Phase 4 - User Testing (Samples)

TESTING THE NEW PROFILE

The goal of the profile was to have an authentic relatable and relevant profile. To create the right type of profile, I did some testing to select the right elements that would constitute it. I first set the criteria for evaluation for selecting the components forming the profile: they had to be neutral yet opposites, intuitive and quick to asses, and relevant to adding dimension to a person’s profile. I went through many iterations of the components and once I was set on most of them, I ran an experiment asking 6 users to individually rate themselves, and then have their other 5 roommates rate them too. The results were very similar meaning people perceived themselves as other did which was the first success. For the elements that were less successful, I tested a few other iterations and got them rated by the 6 users to finally select the 12 final components.

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Phase 5 - Innovative Features and Product Refinement

DISRUPTIVE JOURNEY

Starting with the disruptive journey that allows users to meet instantly and find intentional serendipity. In usual setting, after swiping and matching, people have to go through the daunting task of texting someone you do not know to see if you are worth the meeting. It is only after that that you get to meet in real life. During the texting phase, you can either lose momentum, get busy with other thing and never follow up, or find another match and forget about this one, so the real life encounter does not happen that often. 

With bump, the encounter is moved forward so that as soon as you match you are able to meet. With the send a picture to unlock the chat, you ensure that a person is behind it but it also holds you accountable to actually meet in person making you value the encounter more, now that you are committed to it.

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MEANINGFUL MATCHES

Second, the emphasis on meaningful matches will allow you to curate your encounter and match according to what matters most to you. By setting the time you are available for, the activity that you want to do and the mood that you are in, you set the expectations straight and avoid any deception from either sides. Furthermore, once you get matched, you are capable of filtering your matches based on what matters most to you. You can filter by mutual friends, lifestyle match, age or distance, and any of the 3 criteria you set for your meeting.

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AUTHENTIC PROFILES

And finally, the authentic profiles that will allow you to discover new people and browse authentic profiles. Did you know that 71% of online daters think it is very common to lie about themselves in order to appear more desirable? This is insane. On bump, the profiles are built to be able to show both the similarities and differences you have with the person making them both equally interesting or appealing. The profiles explore this concept of neutral desirability that sounds paradoxical but that represents an equal desirability towards any sides of the spectrum. I look at personality, lifestyle and habits elements which allow people to describe themselves. 

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USER FLOW

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