Remote Digital Ethnography: Understand Online Dating Behaviors Within the Digital Environment
Amanda Weller & Megan Machamer presented “Remote Digital Ethnography: Understand Online Dating Behaviors Within the Digital Environment” at UX Camp Winter 2021. Enjoy!
Senior UX Director, Ipsos
Amanda has over 10 years of experience designing and executing custom projects that deliver creative, insightful solutions to complex problems to create intuitive, innovative, useful, fun experiences for people around the world.
Fluent in various methodologies to deeply understand users needs, pain points, and behaviors. Adaptive and empathetic moderator whose thoughtful analysis produces actionable results. Passion for tech and finance with strong cross-industry experience including consumer products, media, apps, IOT, healthcare, packaging, and service design.
Research Director, Ipsos
UX research specialist and ethnographer with 10 years of social science research experience in both professional and academic contexts. A highly dedicated applied anthropologist who is enthusiastic about culture and technology, and specializes in: research design, discovery, ethnography, and international research.
Academically, she hold a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts in Sociocultural Anthropology from the University of California San Diego, as well as an Associates of Arts in Math and Science with special emphasis in Psychology from MiraCosta College. She has also served as an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology since September of 2016.
The following transcript very likely contains typographical errors. Please forgive any mistakes!
Perfect, alright, well, thank you so much for the introduction, Andaman I are so excited to be presenting our research on online dating technology and the digital ethnographic method today, as you after have a lot of different tools in our tool kit, and one of the things that makes you a really fun and interesting is that you can leverage different kinds of tools depending on the questions that you have and the problems that you’re trying to address the research, and ultimately all of our research impact design, so we’re trying to begin with then Enid and think about what kinds of methods you might need to use depending on what we’re trying to learn, and what we’re really gonna be talking about today is how digital ethnography is one of the tools in our toolkit. And in transitioning into this fully remote world, we think it might be an under-leverage and under-useful that we’re going to doctor today, and we recently did some research in 2020 on online dating apps with our colleague, Dan Delaney, who I believe is made, and we wanna use that as an example of how we were able to use digital ethnography to solve some foundational questions and better understand what the online taking list people it’s like.
But before we talk about digital HaTorah, we need to take a step back and talk about what traditional ethnography looks like. And ethnography really is a combination of three things. The first and most important is participant observation, so rather than being a fly on the wall and observing in a manner that we often refer to as natural sticky or doing naturalistic observation, you’re actually engaging with participants and you’re right along side them, trying to understand what their experience is like… And in traditional social science or anthropological ethnography, you’re trying to understand things like traditions and customs and culture, and us… The way we might use ethnography is to better understand what the user experience is like through engaging with them in a way that is really close-up and trying to understand how they’re moving through and engaging with a digital space. We also tend to use topography in combination of things like individual interviews or focus groups, and one of the ways that UX really can highlight and use ethnography is either in a latitude in a way or in a much faster pace than traditional social scientists might use, but in any case, we’re looking at the environment of the user, which is both physical and digital, we’re looking at things like their ecosystem of apps and other things that might be connected in their digital experience, and we’re also looking at an individual app or an individual digital experience, as an immersive environment.
So as we all know, as you access, we look at the experience of an individual using a product, especially in terms of how easy or pleasing it is to use and how that impacts the experience that they are going through, we have a huge opportunity to think about digital ethnography and leverage it in a different kind of way than we have in the past, one of the ways that we’ve really been thinking about this is how to look at that in verse… Of digital environment that I was just mentioning. So how do these ecosystem of apps, how does this digital experience that the users in Mersin really look and how is the user interacting in that world? So it employs the method of participant observation along with individual interviewing to better understand what the digital context is like, and I’d like you to stop and kind of think about what this might look like for you, so every day we are all engaging in digital experiences, so whether it’s checking the news, are looking at tiktok or stream at checking Facebook and messaging with friends or in changing just simple interactions like text messages, we’re all engaging in new digital environments every single day, and what we wanted to find first is how online dating is a field site, that is digital.
So when we originally plan to do this online dating research, we plan to do it in a traditional UX ethnographic sense, we plan to do in-homes or in context research, maybe looking at how people use online dating apps on the train, how they’re using that at the gym, how they go about interacting with them at their home or with their friends, and when the covid 19 pandemic and the lock downs happened, we were really challenged to redefine the approach and the questions that we had going into it, what was supposed to be face-to face research and to being Digital Research, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical that ethnography could be successfully done in a fully digital environment, but then our research team realize something really foundational in an online dating experience, the environment is almost fully digital. What the user is engaging with in an online dating experience and with that connected experience with other apps and other kinds of digital touch points, they’re really fully immersed in a digital environment, and we actually felt that the method need to accommodate for this fully digital environment as well, so they’re interacting in a digital ecosystem, and so the participant observation that we did really is engaged with and conducted in a fully digital environment, and the question a lot of you are probably sitting here wanting to know is, how exactly did we do this? So how does digital authority look different than traditional honorary? How does it look different than the UT…
How does it look different than kinds of remote work that we might do? Well, the first thing we did was we had our participants engaged with us digitally, no surprise there, just out of social distancing protocols and everything else that we’re doing remotely, we had them join the meeting through their mobile phones through a safe and secure platform, and we have them go about interacting with their online dating apps and those connected ecosystem experiences like opening up Spotify or using social media in appropriate through this digital platform and through screen sharing capabilities, we combine individual interviewing with participant observation to actually observe participants go through the process of using the apps as they normally would, and we minimize Think Aloud protocol and encourage them to just kind of share with us when it felt appropriate, why they were making certain decisions, but again, we wanted to be more alongside of them, seeing how they were using the app. We also had them show us their physical environments as well by fulling around their camera, just to get some of the physical context factored in things like lighting, noise levels, other people in the room sit up of the home environment can all impact experience.
So we looked at that to see if any of that played a role in the online dating experience as well, and we had participants engage with their apps and their digital ecosystems and observed along side of them. One of the things that we all came to realize very quickly is that what users say and what they do in an online dating context is potentially an area where understanding some of the differences in what they say and they do actually really help define some of the needs and pain points that they’re experiencing and the man’s gonna talk about that a little bit later. So we wanna do, before we go into any of the specific data, we wanna give you a quick overview of the online dating landscape very quickly, just to give you a sense of the broader context that we were in as we were doing the research. So why did we pick online dating? We were very curious to see if online dating actually kept up with the social trends, so as it’s become normalized, as it’s become adopted, who were really curious to see whether or not the technology itself has actually kept up with the news and users, and so we wanted to see if ethnographic research in this digital environment could actually help identify some design needs and potential design opportunities for the future of online dating, and we also set out to make a proof of concept of a generative research is really important in designing and also thinking about product road maps.
So a few things to point out, these may seem pretty obvious, but online dating has become extremely normalized, we found that the majority of our participants have gone on more dates and interacted with more people online, not just sharing a pandemic, but just in the last five years, than they have sort of organically meeting someone, and this is a huge piece of technology that has been integrated into the lives of people that are dating, and I sort of on the single market these days, there’s also intersectionality with social trends and technology, relationships with the technology change with social context, cultural norms and environment and generative research is really important to be able to understand how this change over time can impact technology and what companies need to be thinking about as they define their next steps for research and design. I’m gonna give you a few examples of what that might look like. So this is an online dating timeline here, and as you can see, a lot of the big players that we know well today, like match dot com, her money and even, okay, keep it and turn the market pretty early on. And as you can see, things like Grinder, Tinder, hinge and Bumble came a little bit later, but still major players in the online dating world today, one thing I wanna point out to ground you is that in 2007, Apple launched their first iPhone, and this is a big…
Departure from traditional online dating through desktop websites, and again, thinking about how mobile experiences came to emerge and become normalized and popularized, the iPhone is definitely a significant moment, another data point to just kind of think about here in how online dating has become normalized. Let’s just take a quick look at the image here, so just kind of looking at this map here, the red line shows the percentage of couples who have met through online dating, as you can see the growth has been striking in particular since the early 2000s. Again, note that first introduction of early smartphones onto the market and that correlation there, This is supposed to show that wide part adoption, user experience and convenience all matter in a new product or service being normalized, but also that technology has the ability to fundamentally change social norms and behaviors, again, think back to what some of our participants said about the likelihood of meeting someone online versus in the real world, so we set out to do this research, and just to give you a quick participant overview, we talked to 24 people across the US that’s one of the nice things about doing remote researches that you can access people, you basically anywhere.
We set out to recruit a very diverse set of participants, so kept things like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, education as well as urban, suburban and rural dwellers in our sample, because we realize that all of those things could contribute to an online dating experience. And one thing I’ll point out is that the code 19 pandemic actually magnified the wants needs and pain points existed that existed before the pandemic, and conducting research in this extreme situation identified opportunities that may not have been in a normal situation, but things that would be lasting after the pandemic or the app landscape that we set to recruit for was these four apps, just based on new data and how popular these four are, so… Okay, keep a tender, Bumble and Hinge. But something I wanna point out, in addition to the four ops that we intended to recruit for, all of our participants used at least two apps, if not more, so these apps actually exist in ecosystem together where no one app is being used in isolation, and so that ended up being playing a really important and dynamic role in how people were actually going about dating online, and it’s also important to point out that there is actually a pretty similar user experience across these apps, they all have a gamification nature to them.
There’s conventions that are pretty similar costs such as Los, swiping left, right, and interestingly, participants didn’t really see that engaging with different apps actually led to different pools of people or different kinds of interactions with the exception of grinder, which is much more LGBTQ-oriented and also was noted as more of a hookup app, but participants really pretty easily switch between apps and all of them help them meet overwriting users, no one-up seem to be any better at establishing a long-term relationship or a serious relationship, so in connection, these apps along with others that are not paternal and binder, we’re all a part of this sort of ecosystem of online dating digitally. So now let’s go ahead and get into the data I’m gonna hand off to Amanda to take you through some of our learnings.
Yeah, so as Megan mentioned, digital products are integrated into everyday life and to really improve them, we need to understand how our phone interactions intercept with what we do off the phone. So we did a whole dating journey, we’re just gonna show you a little snapshot. The first day has always been a key relationship milestone, but online dating introduces a new important first step, and that’s getting off the app with a contact, whether that’s meeting in real life or often texting before you meet up, the apps began to play a peripheral role here and features designed to keep people in the app often fail solutions that actually enable real world reaction or enhance it by addressing pain points like Safety of potentially meeting a stranger or letting you show your matches to friends were more well-received, it… And of course, his Megas, we started our research at the beginning of covid, and one of the biggest initial impacts that we saw from covid was that participants were moving away from dense urban centers to be… Essentially back home with their families. And half the time, that was a rule or suburban setting and became more of a pain point as we’ll discuss for LGBTQ participants, people trying to meet somebody of a certain age or just wanting to meet somebody who lives within a few blocks from you and partial still you could say maybe the pandemic award an opportunity to have a long distance relationship, and we saw that people didn’t really want that…
It affected behavior, but it didn’t affect this fundamental human need for connection, and people wanted to know that they were meeting somebody, that once the Panama ended, they would be able to hang out with it in real life. What it did effect though, is it the ideal timeline for getting off the apps is one to two weeks of interacting, covid, stretched this in a way and led to an seemingly endless texting and enhance these feelings of rejection that come with the apps and from not meeting somebody… So we read a lot of articles while we were doing the research about Zoom dates, what we saw from the participants we interviewed was that Zoom dates were kind of awkward, frustrating and time-consuming, it often fizzled out without the prospect of an in-person date and getting somebody’s phone number was often a big step that led to know where we also saw mass querying political affiliation and other reactions to current events became the new deal breakers 2020, and some apps did respond with new features and filters. So hinge, for example, offered a zoom option, and we really just saw that there’s a need for apps to come up with some sort of additional way to keep the spark going when you cannot meet offline in person, and the biggest point pain point that a Neue is just a more enhanced version of the old saying that there’s plenty of fish in the sea is actually amplified by unlimited scrolling and seemingly unlimited choice in the apps is create the profile settings and filters provide a sense of control, but they were often used with…
Is participants here that they might filter out a good match, for example, if I said that I wanted somebody who it… How does that limit my matches within my specific location, that inherent lack of transparency reduces feelings of control that people need in digital products, because they don’t know what’s happening behind the seats, it also means that people don’t fully trust the algorithms to curate their matches, it’s 2020. Orations tended to be younger. They’re aware that an algorithm is working behind the scenes, but sometimes they felt like it was unfair or was working against them, and they wanted to have more control over that. The downside of all of this is that too many matches lead, exhaustion and a situation that doesn’t feel personalized. We also saw that participants are rarely revisiting their filter preferences or even their profile, and once they… Which could be leading to this feeling that the right person is an outfit for them. And during the lockdown, we talked to one participant who had lecture university town to quarantine with her parents in rural North Carolina, and as a black bisexual woman, she had had… Her filters showed that she was open to meeting either male or female matches, and she didn’t prefer somebody who was a pro rate, and she showed us her profile and her matches that she was wiping and there was really no matches, which is super frustrating experience.
I was not an experience that she had encountered pre-pandemic, and it held across multiple app, so there was definitely a problem there, and she kind of discussed how it’s not just user-controlled filters that make an impact, but also how the other OEMS location-based place role and this all creates this paradox, so yeah, there’s plenty of efficiency, but why haven’t I found the fish for me… We also saw at have these premium features that you can pay for to get more matches, Tinder plus you can have unlimited swipes, all of our participants were aware of them, but only 8% actually had tried them and they were rejected for a reason. The benefits were not clear, there was definitely a discomfort that we saw in this perception that why do I have to pay people to meet me, I should just be able to naturally find the right person for me, and you saw that premium features really should be set up in a way that feels more personal to an individuals dating quest and not make it feel like the system is rigged, which is the downside that we saw from that. And then one of the things that really came out of this research and thinking about when the timeline, Megan showed of Davis had been run around for a long time, so has the technology capua one of the biggest pain points we observed in building off that example that I just gave were in connection to racial, social demographics, sexual orientation, location, and this research helped us better understand what that experience was actually like and to ideate on how it might be solved.
Participants definitely found work-arounds and they learned to accept aspects of the algorithms, but there’s some really simple things that people could do, like introducing gender dropdown that include a non-binary option and just enable folks who are proud of their identities to filter or flag to find people who are more like that and yes, the technology, if you say As it coped up with the social trends, you would say, Yeah, look at how many people are using these apps… How many people are downloading them? How many people continue to use them? But when you look at experiences like LGBTQ dating, or looking at race, ethnicity, things like that, cultural, religious requirements, accessibility, there’s a lot of room to grow just to an app that’s literally changing how people behave should reflect how people actually are… One of the main points of our talk is to just kinda talk about how generative research works and also why you should do it. So one of the biggest questions we get from our clients when we’re talking about ethnography is what can be learned by asking big and broad questions, and then also from our co-workers is like, how do you sell a project like this to my stakeholder when we don’t even know what the impact is gonna be.
It can be really overwhelming. The key thing to remember is that if you did not do generative research, there’s really no way to know if you are asking the right questions, if you’re focusing on the right design elements, you often… Anything like that. So when you get to the summative stage or you go deeper into design iterations, you might discover at that point when it gets a lot more expensive to change or to launch something new, or you’ve already launched and when people didn’t like it, it’s often too late. So really, one of the key things here is that it’s been a while since your last big discovery project, it might be time to conduct research to ensure that your product experience is held up over time. Fundamental behaviors change. Think about online shopping. That wasn’t even a thing. How many years ago? And then it became big, and then it became bigger and bigger, and people… They adjust to the technology and the technology adjust to them, and you need to make sure that you’re keeping up… The insights from foundational research can make sure that your services and products are keeping up with the times, and then also to help surface on that needs that your competitors might not be addressing.
And then back to your question of stakeholder buy-in, it’s about understanding the business questions and showing multiple people how you are able to answer those questions, getting support from people across the organization strengthens your research and strengthen your case, you need to shape and approach, deliver the richness of the customer voice and experience, that’s where things like journey maps, actually using videos, research presentations that show, don’t tell… Are really key here too. You might have gotten buy-in from the first project, but let people know what they got out of it, so they can really see the value, and then finally, foundational questions can show what’s changed in the user experience since your project officially launched as we’ve shown today.
We were able to build some pain points and opportunities for online dating in 2021 and ensure that the technology is keeping up at the time, and then also help people help these companies to make sure that the interactions that they’re introducing mirror actual social trends and users and thank you know, we don’t have a lot of time, but if there’s any questions, we’re happy to answer.