What Makes a Dating App Successful, By Developers Who’ve Built 15+ of Them

We’ve dipped our toes in many fields, but there’s something special about the dating pool. As of today, STRV has built a number of its own top-rated dating apps (like Surge and Zoe) and has helped create or expand more than 15 dating apps for our partners—including some big names we’re not at liberty to mention.

What makes dating apps exciting for designers and engineers is that the fundamental concept is simple yet malleable. We’re constantly surprised by the ideas that our partners bring our way, ideas that give us new territories to explore in a world we know so well.

At this point, it’s fair to say we’ve learned a lot. We’ve seen thrilling ideas fail and have had to figure out why. We’ve seen surprising successes that slowly exposed patterns which we now use as guides. And over the years, we’ve been able to categorize all of these learnings into ten main categories.

To gather as much information as possible, we spoke to STRV Co-founder Martin Stava, Frontend Platform Lead Danny Kijkov and Surge CEO Jakub Sedlak. But before we get into the details, a little about how this dating app craze at STRV began.

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STRV Co-founder Martin Stava and Frontend Platform Lead Danny Kijkov

STRV FINDS A MATCH IN DATING APPS

There are too many client projects to discuss in one article, so let’s focus on the dating apps we’ve made from scratch, and how it happened.

STRV began toying with a mobile-first dating app in a time of dating websites. These sites were based on users seeing a large grid of profiles, picking who they wanted to contact, and going in cold. Some had mobile apps, but they were just heavy, old-school copies of the web platforms. It was a pre-Tinder era, and something was missing.

“Our idea was that users should be able to connect differently than just picking out of a bunch of people,” explained Martin. “The dating web concept had many flaws. For one, it was slow; opening up profiles one by one, messaging at random, etc. Another problem was spamming. There was no balance or control over who’s messaging you. We wanted to solve this.”

That solution? The Game, STRV’s first own venture into dating apps. A user saw three profiles and had to choose one, then came the next three, and so on. It was fun, easy and fast. But with Tinder simultaneously releasing their swiping hit, our plans got steamrolled.

STRV ended up selling The Game to Spark Networks, a global dating company. As luck would have it, Spark Networks was seeing its users move to mobile-first platforms, and the company was lacking a mobile strategy. We were happy to help and took on multiple projects, including Christian Mingle.

It was around this time that STRV began recognizing the potential of more niche-oriented dating apps, which ultimately led to Martin and his crew of fellow engineers founding the STRV-made dating apps Surge and Zoe—for the gay and lesbian community, respectively.

Today, Surge holds an App Store rating of 4.5 based on 10k reviews, has 10M messages sent every month and was rated the best gay dating app of 2019, while Zoe is the best rated lesbian app of 2020 and holds an App Store rating of 4.6 based on 10.9k reviews. The five years we’ve dedicated to continuously improving the user experience and all-around appeal of these apps have taught us priceless lessons.

These lessons, along with the shared knowledge our team has accumulated on a multitude of client projects, can best be summed up in the following points.

DON’T LOSE SIGHT OF A DATING APP’S PURPOSE

Dating apps are simple, single-purpose products. Go ahead, play with the design, the features, the aspects unique to your product. But remember why your users downloaded the app: they want a fast, easy way of building personal connections.

When setting out to make a new dating app, you start with a concept that makes your app stand out amongst its competition. Don’t lose sight of that. As you move forward, you may be tempted to keep adding additional functions on top of the ones that you established at the start. This isn’t always necessary.

When Tinder’s swiping method started catching on, Tinder assumed that users would get tired of it, so the team began brainstorming new features and even a social networking aspect. These social functions never caught on because that’s simply not why Tinder’s users turned to the app. As explained by Martin:

“A typical dating app user opens up the app, searches for a while, messages for a while, goes on a date and, once it works out, he/she leaves the app. It’s important to keep this in mind.”

A dating app’s best “feature” is the people. That’s the main reason why even older apps with slightly outdated designs still stay on top. Your main goal is to build a community of users that believe in the app’s primary promise.

IT’S ALL ABOUT ONBOARDING & PROFILE QUALITY

To keep your user base growing, excited and active, make sure to fine-tune the basic funnel: onboarding and user profiles.

Your app’s first point of contact with new users is the sign-up process. This is your chance to catch their attention, as well as to guide them with steps that ensure appealing profiles. It is also the place where you introduce what makes your app different, and what people can expect to get out of it. But overdo it with instructions, and users can easily lose interest.

Put yourself in your users’ shoes and figure out a clever system that motivates (or even rewards) users to upload high-quality photos, to include interesting facts about themselves and to add as much additional information as is relevant for your app (for example, links to users’ Instagram profiles).

When asked about how we approached this issue on Surge, Jakub explained, “We learned that users enjoy being rewarded for following instructions. What has worked for us is giving them some app-specific currency for free as motivation.”

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Surge dating app profile design, by STRV

ORGANIZING PROFILES DOESN’T REQUIRE COMPLICATED ALGORITHMS

Oftentimes, people try to come up with revolutionary, complex algorithms to determine how to organize which profiles show up first as a user swipes through potential matches. But really, there’s no more logical solution than the one we already have.

“The priorities are: activity, likes and distance,” said Martin. “These factors are such a specific filter on their own that any additional parameters are unnecessary.”

A sensible radius of about 5-10 km (3-6 miles) generates about 500 people (assuming the app has just recently begun gaining traction). On average, about 100 of these users were active in the past week. That means you have to put those 100 people first because it’s very likely that the inactive users have stopped using the app and therefore won’t create matches.

Additionally, because most users swipe about 50-100 profiles, they will end up seeing a multitude of users anyway. No need to put the most attractive profiles first.

Once again, it’s quite simple. The first profiles shown are the people that were recently active, ideally that very day. Along with them are the profiles of people that have already liked the user. This is how you create matches, and that’s the goal. If there are no matches, then there is no activity on the platform, which means that platform is not fulfilling its purpose.

POUR RESOURCES INTO PERFORMANCE FEATURES, NOT EXPECTED FEATURES

As with other apps, a dating app’s features can be divided into two categories: performance and expected features. Understanding the difference will help you invest time into what matters.

Performance features offer room to blow users away with unique designs and added value. This includes the above-mentioned profile quality and registration. Want to make your app fun? Meaningful? Thematic? This is where to go for it. Just remember: fast and easy. For example, when designing animations that uncover a profile’s details, remember that users must be able to see everything immediately, and they must be able to return to browsing just as easily.

Expected features are clearcut, meaning that they can’t be done much better than what is already the industry standard. This includes things like login, resetting passwords and the chat—which is the biggest function in terms of implementation. Today, a lot of services offer chat infrastructure and components that you can purchase or subscribe to, and it’s highly advised to use something that’s already been created. (Based on the huge time-saving benefits, STRV has actually made its own chat component that can be adapted to and implemented into any Android and iOS app.)

It’s easy to lose a lot of time building the chat, but when it comes to apps that don’t have messaging as their primary function (like FB Messenger does), there’s no need to go above and beyond. Users expect the chat to be there and working well, but you can’t really toy around with it and improve it by much. Its purpose is straightforward, so keep it simple and reliable.

As an example, Martin once again turned to the big gun.

“Tinder has never had an exceptional chat. It’s relatively slow and doesn’t have many functions compared to chat-based apps. But it’s never needed anything more than what it has. Once dating app users want to start communicating with their matches more actively, they will naturally move to another app.”

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Chat design for dating app Zoe, by STRV

RESPECT HOW PEOPLE MEET IN REAL LIFE

When building a niche dating app, consider your target audience: their lifestyle, their interests, their needs. How would they initiate conversations in the real world? For example, if you’re targeting people with very active lifestyles, then mutual interests play an important role in meeting someone new. If your audience is family-oriented, then the community they’re joining should help them build serious relationships.

For instance, one of our client projects, heybaby, is a dating app for people who want or have kids. This is a very specific audience for whom the most popular dating platforms aren’t the best fit, because those platforms gravitate towards a more lighter form of connection. heybaby connects people with a specific foundation, which—as we’ve seen with Surge, Zoe and multiple client projects—can be a highly successful business model.

In terms of the importance of photos, many newer dating apps have been toying with concepts that exclude photos altogether. As long as it suits the app’s main motivation, this can work well. However, avoiding photos with nothing but a claim of being less shallow isn’t always the right choice.

The reality is, the way we look at a photo of someone isn’t just about judging their attractiveness. Everyone focuses on different aspects of a person’s appearance. Clothing, hairstyle, body language, surroundings, facial expression… all of these things provide insight into people’s personalities—do they take care of themselves, do they prioritize their wellbeing, do they have a healthy sense of self-confidence and self-respect?

Just like in real life, we take in the full picture, evaluate, and decide whether it is someone we want to approach. So if you choose to go photo-less, great. Just make sure the reasoning is solid.

GET YOUR PREMIUM FEATURES RIGHT

Premium features (offered most often via subscriptions) are an established, successful model of monetization for dating apps. What we’ve learned from our Surge and Zoe users is that the best performing feature has consistently been “Who Likes Me,” which allows users to see a dashboard of who’s liked them. This speeds up the process (more proof of users wanting things to move quickly), and plays to a person’s ego.

Similarly, the “Boost” feature is also one of the most-used. Because it puts a user’s profile on the top of everyone’s list for one day, it mirrors the benefits of the “Who Likes Me” feature: speed and ego (via gaining likes).

Interestingly, we’ve learned that “Super Likes” aren’t that successful. This is because the feature takes away the both-sided interest that swipe-based dating apps are built on, and actually brings back the old style of dating—where someone would reach out without a sign of interest from the other party. Dating today no longer revolves around one side chasing the other. Instead, it is an agreement that moving ahead makes sense.

PRIORITIZE SECURITY & ACTIVELY MODERATE CONTENT

Offering a function for uploading photos means that every day, there’s a significant percentage of photos that don’t follow guidelines and/or are inappropriate. It’s important to have a system that detects these photos as soon as possible. If you’re relying on users to report this sort of content, you’re bound to be left with a poor reputation. As of now (while AI solutions remain overly expensive), having admins check every new profile’s photos is the best way to ensure a safe space for your users.  

It should come as no surprise that dating apps are also a magnet for scammers. A common occurrence is users going through the verification process—which includes taking a selfie with specific gestures—and then deleting all photos and uploading new ones. A good way to combat this is to require that users keep at least one photo from the verification process on their profile. If they delete all of them, they have to go through the verification process again.

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Example of a 'verified user' profile from dating app Zoe, by STRV

Your users, as well as users of other dating apps, will always let you know what they want. Listen to them, learn from them and give them what they want, not what you hope they will want.

For instance, Tinder’s mutual match was actually not a revolutionary idea. The dating service Badoo already had it as a secondary function and under the name “Encounters.” But because it was not a primary function, it was rarely utilized and therefore didn’t create many matches. Whether Tinder was inspired by Badoo or not isn’t something we claim to know, but it would certainly make sense—and it would be a wise move on Tinder’s part.

Using competition and competition’s user reviews as inspiration, especially when building a new app, helps you understand the market and your target audience. Add this to your own user testing, and you’ve got a well-research product that can confidently hit the market.

One trend occurring right now is the interesting case of Instagram, which has naturally transformed into a dating platform. This is because it’s actually quite similar to Tinder—with its high-quality visual content, visible user interests, a secure space where profile information acts as a sort of background check, and its follow/follow back process being similar to Tinder’s matching feature.

Taking this into consideration, perhaps there is room to innovate further. It’s all about connecting the dots and producing the next best thing.

DON’T FORGET OTHER PLATFORMS

While dating has moved to the mobile-first sphere, other platforms still come with undeniable benefits. There are many dating services for which a web app or PWA (progressive web app) make sense. A good example is one of our client projects.

Our team was brought on board when the client already had a highly established mobile presence. We were asked to build a PWA with specific goals in mind, which apply to anyone looking to expand their dating app’s experience and which Danny summarized for us in three points.

“The first goal was to reach more users. Not everyone uses phones as frequently as laptops and, with a PWA, there’s no need to download an app, it doesn’t take up space on your phone, and it works on both the web and mobile.

“The second goal was specifically tied to the Asian market. Because Facebook is blocked in the Chinese App Store and Google Play, many dating apps that utilize FB login are therefore blocked as well. A PWA is an easy workaround.

“The final goal was to get into markets that aren’t normally reachable, specifically third-world countries—where there is growing demand for dating apps, but the slow internet and older mobile phones with limited memory often keep people from using the apps. While a mobile app takes up about 80 MB of data, a PWA only takes up 200 KB, making it highly accessible in third-world conditions.”

You can take a look at a PWA's key benefits here.

PUT YOUR APP IN THE RIGHT HANDS

The dating app UI/UX experience is about more than functionality and pretty colors. It needs to appeal to users in a way that invites them to join the community. Some companies hire entire data centers to analyze how to get it right. Sure, that’s one way to go. Another option is trusting your team’s experience.

Here’s where we toot our own horn a little, and with good reason. Our designers, engineers, product managers and QA testers all have numerous people on their teams that have worked on dating apps for years. And because STRV believes in sharing knowledge not just within departments, but throughout the company, hiring one engineer means you have all of STRV’s experience at your disposal. When working on a product, we’re pulling from the joined victories and failures of many apps that came before.

Especially in terms of dating apps, whatever you bring before us… we’ve been in similar situations before. We’re able to see the big picture, with all of its complexities. Our team starts every project by applying all of our insight, asking questions we know need to be answered and pointing out gaps that may create unnecessary obstacles.

For clients who trust us to lead their idea from Discovery Phase onward, we start with smaller steps that help determine every nuance of the app’s foundation before moving on to design and engineering. And after a successful release, we are here to stay.

As one of the biggest cheerleaders of post-release care, Danny speaks for all of us when he explains just how happy we are to stand by our clients as their apps evolve.

Once an MVP is built, it’s not over. It’s the beginning of continuous development, and our product managers and engineers love this phase. It always brings something new—difficulties that are beautiful because they are challenges that we want to take on and overcome. That feeling right there brings us joy.”

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Linda Krestanova

Linda Krestanova

I do words.

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