What Makes ‘Swipe Right’ Such a Compelling UX Feature?

Inside the gesture that influenced a decade of app design.

Written by Ellen Glover
Published on May. 04, 2022
What Makes ‘Swipe Right’ Such a Compelling UX Feature?

It’s been 10 years since Tinder first came on the scene — a confounding milestone that somehow feels like both an eternity and no time at all — and Evelina Rodriguez, the company’s director of product design, remembers it well.

“It was a big deal,” Rodriguez said. “It was just so revolutionary.”

Around that time, Rodriguez was working as a user experience designer at eHarmony, an early player in the online dating space that came to be at the height of the dot-com era of the early 2000s. For more than a decade, eHarmony and other websites like it dominated this industry with ease, claiming their long questionnaires and complex algorithms could measure compatibility and help you find true love.

Then, seemingly overnight, Tinder changed the landscape. Just two years after its 2012 launch, the young startup exceeded a $1 billion valuation and had processed a billion total matches

It also transformed the entire industry’s user base. Before Tinder, young adults — folks in their late teens to early thirties — were significantly less likely to participate in online dating than older adults. But by 2013, the number of young online daters grew a staggering 170 percent, going from an underserved market to one of the industry’s most important demographics.

Why Is Swiping So Satisfying?

Swiping is an innate gesture — even babies will make swiping motions when they see an object they find interesting. In UX design, it is usually done with the thumb, which is the way many people prefer to navigate their mobile devices, according to research. The motion of swiping on a screen also harkens back to familiar, analog counterparts like flipping through a magazine or browsing a clothes rack. And when swiping is used in a game-like way (like Tinder), it employs what is called a variable reward schedule. Similar to a slot machine, each swipe builds curiosity, and the brain is intermittently rewarded with dopamine when you get a match. 

To this day, Tinder remains the most successful dating app in not just the Match Group family (which also owns popular apps like Hinge and Match.com), but the world, with 75 million monthly active users and some $1.4 billion in annual revenue as of 2020. And it managed to get there not with some cutting-edge technology or lofty promises of finding your soul mate, but with a swipe.

The swipe brought a “fun interaction” to the otherwise dry, time-consuming world of online dating, Rodriguez said. With Tinder, all you had to do was swipe right if you were interested in the person, and left if you weren’t. The design was simple, but it packed a big punch.

“It kind of invented this new user experience pattern,” Rodriguez said. And this goes beyond just dating, she added. “‘Swipe right’ and ‘swipe left’ are terms that are used in popular culture to indicate interest in something. … You see it in movies, you hear it in music. I think that’s kind of a testament to how much Tinder popularized swiping.”

You also see it in other apps. Of course, women-focused Bumble famously got its start at Tinder, but even eHarmony’s app has a swiping feature now. And many other enterprising young companies focused on everything from shoes to dogs have come and gone over the years, implementing a swipe-yes-or-no design as a way to replicate Tinder’s meteoric rise.

But these days, incorporating the swipe means more than just becoming a Tinder clone in order to grow a user base quickly. It means delivering a user experience that a given sector hasn’t seen before.


Swipe Right for Success

This is certainly the case for Mada, an e-commerce app launched at the beginning of 2020. After completing a short quiz to give the app a better sense of their personal style, users can swipe right or left on thousands of clothes and accessories from top brands like Urban Outfitters and Bloomingdale’s. The more you use Mada, the better it gets at catering to your personal preferences.

Mada’s founder and CEO Madison Semarjian thought of the idea for the fashion app as a freshman at Boston College in 2015 — incidentally, right in the middle of Tinder’s rapid ascent. She said the decision to implement swiping largely came out of a need for curation in the e-commerce space, especially among Gen Z shoppers like herself.

“We’re the first generation to grow up with an iPhone in our pockets. We have access to the world already,” Semarjian said. “We don’t need access to the world, we want a world more personalized to us.” 

She found that dating apps did this particularly well.

“The way that dating apps were implementing algorithms was so fascinating to me because it was giving you one at a time, one at a time, instead of a bunch at once. That’s what really inspired me to create this very ‘zoned in’ experience,” Semarjian said. “Being able to use AI to really curate who you’ll match with seemed to work for them, so I wanted to see if it would work for clothing. And so far we’ve been pretty successful with that.”

“I wanted to implement behavior that people were already used to.”

Mada’s design has garnered the attention of celebrity stylists like Philippe Uter and Tara Swennen, and the app now partners with thousands of brands across the United States, the United Kingdom and 27 countries in the European Union. Semarjian claims the average user engagement time on Mada is about nine minutes and thirty seconds, which is more than triple the average session duration on Instagram and just about a second less than that of TikTok, according to Statista. Such engagement, Semarjian said, can be tied right back to Mada’s familiar and simple UX.

“I wanted to implement a behavior that people were already used to,” she said, likening Mada’s swiping design to the way someone might flip through a clothes rack. But, of course, instead of having to go to a physical store, users can get the same kind of experience from home.

“If you’re sitting in the back of an Uber, bored — you’re swiping. You’re getting ready — you’re swiping. … What I really wanted was something that could be part of everyday behavior,” she said.

This is an example of what S. Shyam Sundar calls “skeuomorphism,” which is when technology is designed to imitate or mimic their real-world counterparts. It brings the established understanding and interpretation of physical objects into a digital environment so that there is less of a learning curve. Sundar, a professor at Penn State University who studies the social and psychological aspects of technology use, said this is one way to achieve the “holy grail” of human-computer interaction — a user experience that is “natural, intuitive and easy to use.”

A desire for intuitive design is a sentiment that’s been echoed by many Tinder mimics, like date night planner Cobble, professional networking app Shapr, and SWiPe, an app designed to help users quit drinking. And then there’s Casa Blanca, a real estate app that implemented swiping to make the process of finding a home “fun, yet familiar,” as co-founder and CEO Hannah Bomze told Built In when the app launched in 2020. In short: In a field like app design, where tapping into innate impulses drives success, it stands to reason that swiping would emerge as a common means of navigation.

“There are all these interfaces that people have worked on over the decades to kind of give users a feeling of natural interaction with the environment being portrayed,” Sundar said. “If you say that swiping is natural, then what is the real-world analog that it imitates? For me, that is more like a magazine page. Flipping through a page is something we are used to in the older, more analog media.”

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The Innate Satisfaction of Swiping

Granted, swiping predates magazines. It’s a primitive gesturebabies as young as 17 days old have been observed making swiping motions when they see an object they find interesting.

In UX design, swiping is distinct from other gestures like flicking and scrolling, allowing users to “slide elements to complete actions upon a passing threshold,” as Google’s Material Design manual puts it. In practice, it is usually done with the thumb, making it amenable to what design expert Steven Hoober calls the “thumb zone.” In his book, Designing Mobile Interfaces, Hoober says nearly 50 percent of mobile phone users prefer to navigate using a single thumb, making it a crucial consideration on app design. So it makes sense that users enjoy the act of swiping. 

The behaviors that result from swiping aren’t exclusive to humans either. A 1948 experiment carried out by renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner found that even birds are responsive to it. In the experiment, Skinner conditioned hungry pigeons to believe that food delivered randomly into a tray was prompted by their pecking. The pigeons began pecking more in the hopes of getting extra food, essentially turning them into “gamblers,” journalist Nancy Jo Sales told Recode ahead of the air date of her 2018 documentary, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age

She went on to explain that when users swipe right on an app to signify interest and left to signify no interest, it reinforces similar behaviors in humans to the ones observed in pigeons. 

In the documentary, Tinder’s co-founder and CSO Jonathan Badeen explained that the app’s swipe mechanic was predicated, in part, on the lessons learned from Skinner’s experiment. “We have some of these game-like elements where you almost feel like you’re being rewarded,” Badeen said, likening Tinder’s user experience to the “nice little rush” you get from using a slot machine.

And when he and his co-founder Sean Rad were first figuring out the app’s design in the early aughts, they experimented with that concept, modeling the original stack of potential matches with a deck of cards. When they played with the cards for inspiration, their natural urge was to throw — or swipe — the top card to the side, according to a 2014 interview with TIME. And the iconic Tinder swipe was born.  

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Why Swiping Works

There have been a lot of studies delving into the psychological impact of swiping since that fateful Skinner experiment. Sundar, of Penn State, said he and his colleagues were among the first to look into the relationship between the swiping design and user experience. In their 2016 study, “The Power of the Swipe,” they found that it leads to a greater sense of control, enjoyment and user engagement. It also makes users more likely to return to the app later on.

“There’s this whole element of arousing your interest on what might lie ahead,” Sundar said. “There’s that little bit of suspense and pause and potentially pleasant serendipity that awaits people. So that has an inherent curiosity and interest level.”

Although the study was not necessarily inspired by Tinder’s design specifically, Sundar says these findings are certainly still applicable since swiping is the “most dominant interaction technique” on the app. 

On the other hand, many other studies were inspired by Tinder’s overwhelming popularity. One titled “Swiping vs. Scrolling in Mobile Shopping Applications” wanted to see if the success of Tinder’s design was applicable to e-commerce apps, and concluded that swiping interfaces lead to greater levels of “cognitive absorption” — a combination of immersion and enjoyment — as well as playfulness.

“There’s that little bit of suspense and pause and potentially pleasant serendipity that awaits people.”

Another published in 2016 called “Screened Intimacies” interviewed Tinder users in order to figure out the implications of “swipe logic,” or “the pace, or the increased viewing speed” encouraged by the app’s user interface. In the paper, an interviewee described the experience of using the app as something between “fishing and playing roulette.” Another said the repetitive swiping action has the potential to become “nearly involuntary.”

This speaks to what Sundar refers to as “cognitive absorption,” which is a good way to get users to focus on an act, without necessarily retaining anything.

“[Swiping] is one of those inherently appealing interaction techniques that encourages people to do more than what their brain can process. Because the actions are so simple that they can almost occur faster than we have a chance to reflect and think,” Sundar said. “[Users] may not absorb the content, they may not elaborate on the content that is there, but they’re very much hooked on the action.” 

Of course, this kind of absorption can come with some problems. For one, it can be addictive and even overwhelming, causing what Sundar and other researchers call the “tyranny of choice,” which is when there are so many options that the act of choosing one becomes “burdensome.” And if you’re looking to get users to engage with something that requires “systematic processing” — like an educational app — then swiping isn’t the best design choice, he said.

It has, however, proven very effective for Tinder and other apps modeled after it, as reiterated by the “Screened Intimacy” study. The simple act of swiping right (yes) or left (no) reinforces an already “coded motion,” the authors wrote. “Tinder has successfully re-signified the swipe gesture to the extent that it is now often first associated with the app and the approval/disapproval binary.”

In other words: Tinder has managed to appropriate a universal, innate gesture and make it a part of its legacy.

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Swiping in the Age of the Metaverse

Looking ahead, Rodriguez says she and the rest of the design team are working to iterate on that “classic Tinder experience” every day. Tinder’s Emmy-nominated experience Swipe Night, which lets users navigate a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative through swiping, ran for the second time last November. And in just the last year, the company has rolled out several new, more contextual swiping experiences, including Explore, which allows users to navigate people’s profiles based on their interests, and Fast Chat, to let users talk before matching with each other. 

“We’re finding new ways to kind of repurpose the swipe and allow people to go at it from a different angle,” Rodriguez said.

More broadly, she added that Tinder is placing a renewed focus on designing a more inclusive, safe experience for people of all genders, sexual orientations and cultures. This emphasis on creating a more personalized, intentional user experience is due largely to the generational shift in dating habits happening right now. Typically, millennials on Tinder match, chat for a week or two, and go on an in-person date. But Gen Z, which makes up about half of Tinder’s user base, is embracing “slow dating,” CEO Renate Nyborg recently told Fortune — a more deliberate approach that involves really getting to know someone between that initial swipe and first meetup.

“We’re actually working more to engage users into going deeper, beyond the swipe, and encouraging them to put their interests, their values and really share about themselves in their profile.”

“What we hear a lot when we talk to Gen Z users is there’s a fear of meeting up one on one. A lot of Gen Zs meet up in groups” Rodriguez said. “We’re actually working more to engage users into going deeper, beyond the swipe, and encouraging them to put their interests, their values and really share about themselves in the profile.” Tinder is emphasizing “real-life” experiences, she added.

Of course, the lines between real life and online are continuing to blur as the metaverse, cryptocurrency and the entire Web3 space continue to capture companies’ imaginations. Prominent players in fitness, gaming, social media and many other industries are betting big on the promise of Web3.

And the dating sector is no different. Tinder has begun incorporating digital currency into its app, and is testing “Tinder Coins” in some European markets as a method of payment for in-app features like boosts and super likes. Meanwhile Rodriguez said she and her team are thinking about ways they can take Tinder into the metaverse.

“We’re building on that intuitive swipe gesture and having experiences where you can connect in ways that are relevant,” she said.

But she asserted that the swipe is “by no means going away. I think it’s something that will always be a part of Tinder.”

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