Dating Apps Have Failed Autistic Users, But That Can Change

Imagine living in a world in which you have a 1 in 3 chance of ever going on a date.
Now imagine that even if you somehow find yourself in that lucky minority, you still have just a 9% chance of finding a partner, falling in love, and getting married.
Meanwhile, as you struggle day in and day out just to find someone that you have an ounce of chemistry with, almost every single other person around you is going on dates, and over half of them are getting married.

I know this situation may sound bleak, but there’s hope yet! A new wave of mobile apps have just been created specifically to help people connect, go on dates, and fall in love. In fact, these apps are so effective, that 39% of people are finding long term partners on them.

The only issue? None of these apps have been designed with your differentiated needs in mind. As you try to navigate the world of online dating, you find it impossible to connect with anyone who understands you, your personality, and your unique social behaviors.

As a result, you naturally feel rejected and hopeless, believing that you will never have the same opportunities to find love as those around you.

Unfortunately, this is the reality that tens of millions of adults with autism and Asperger’s face each day.
I know this all may sound negative, but there is some positive news. The underlying problems inhibiting autistic users from finding partners online are relatively simple and can be easily resolved with the help of just a little research and design work.

Chances are that you either know someone on the autism spectrum, or know someone close to someone on it. If you do know someone with autism or Asperger’s, there’s a significant chance that you’ve seen them struggle to form relationships, go on dates, and find suitable partners to share a deep connection with.

As the brother of someone with autism, I’ve seen this uphill battle played out first hand over the course of a few decades. Throughout that time, I’ve also seen resources for those on the spectrum grow exponentially.

Technology has transformed and improved the lives of people around the world — but in many ways, those on the spectrum have been left out.

As a User Experience Designer, I believe it’s about time the worlds of autism research and accessible online dating finally meet.

As such, I’ll be outlining why prominent dating apps are in need of a new feature that enables autistic users to connect, who should be integrating this feature, and how this feature should be designed.Why can’t people on the spectrum just use existing dating apps as they are?

The main reason for experiences such as these is that users with autism express and receive affection very differently than neurotypicals. They have a very unique way of navigating romantic situations and don’t interpret social signs the same way as those not on the spectrum.

Due to this romantic disconnect, users with autism and Asperger’s typically prefer to date others with ASD, as it facilitates a deeper level of connection and comfort.

Because there are no prevalent dating apps that make an effort to match autistic users with one another, they often get matched with neurotypicals, leading to brutal miscommunications, failed connections, and depleted self-esteems.

If autistic users are so unique, then why not just build a brand new platform specifically for them?

Whether it was autisticdating.net, which launched with the noble mission of creating a free online dating and friendship site for those on the spectrum.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the site became overrun with bots and subsequently dissuaded new users.

Then there was aspieology.com, which was actually created by a designer on the spectrum who was fed up with the existing online dating options. Unfortunately, the designer was unable to attract enough users to keep the platform afloat, and the site is now inactive

Finally, there was Spectrum Singles. This was easily the most notable dating site for those on the spectrum. In fact, the site received so much attention that even BuzzFeed News and Bustle picked it up.

However, the site was unable to handle the increased traffic, subsequently leading to a decrease in active users, and eventually a “ghost town” of a dating site.

So to answer that question, if a standalone dating platform that received the attention of major media outlets was unable to succeed, then I don’t believe it’s reasonable to think that any new dating apps specifically dedicated to autistic users will suddenly appear and resolve this issue.

Why should a successful app with millions of active users care about any of this?

1. It’s our civic duty as designers.

Dating apps are riddled with scammers. In 2018 alone, dating app users reportedly lost a combined $143MM of their personal savings to online romance scams, with a median loss of $2,600 per person.

These scammers feed on desperate individuals, enticing them to connect and chat, and then subsequently convincing them to send large sums of money.

Given the lack of dating resources currently available to users on the spectrum, these individuals have become the primary targets of said scammers.

One of our most important roles as designers is to generate empathy for the user. This empathy effectively improves the likelihood that our research and design improvements are understood and properly implemented by non-designers.

If the notion of an autistic person who has never been on a date in their life losing $2,600 of their precious income to an online scammer while simultaneously having their confidence depleted doesn’t make you feel some sort of empathy, then I don’t know what will.

2. It’s a strategic business opportunity.

1 in every 59 people have autism, a number that has ballooned by 32% since 2012.

Based on those figures, that means there are currently 4,152,000 adults on the spectrum in the U.S. alone.

By becoming the go-to online dating service for adults with ASD, the platforms that do implement these changes will effectively reach an untapped user base of 4MM+ (and growing).

Now that we know why these apps with substantial user bases are in need of a new feature, let’s take a look at who in particular should be implementing these updates.

Who should be redesigning for those with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

However, I chose to center this case study around the dating app Hinge for three reasons.

  1. They’ve already done the hard part.

If you’re a member of the design community, you know how prevalent the topic of accessible design (the process of designing for people with disabilities) is right now.

When designers talk about accessibility, they are often referring to people who are color blind, have low vision, or are deaf. Research on and the implementation of design tactics pertaining to the needs of users on the spectrum is almost nonexistent.

However, whether it was intentional or not, the dating app Hinge has done a phenomenal job designing for users with ASD (best practices below) based on the little information we have.

2. They’re already matching users based on very personal details and attributes.

If you’ve ever used Hinge, you know that the platform’s main differentiator is the ability to prioritize your dating options based on a set of preferences, thus ensuring you only view profiles that align with your interests while excluding those who don’t.

These preferences include extremely personal attributes, such as ethnicity, religion, height, political views and even the user’s education level.

Given that Hinge already includes this preference functionality, it begs an obvious question. If we can prioritize matches based on cultural variables such as ethnicity and religion, and physical variables such as height, then why not also take neurological variables into consideration?

In other words, we know that people with autism prefer to date others on the spectrum. We also know that people with autism experience frustration and are often the victims of scams when matching with neurotypicals on dating apps. So why not improve the likelihood that they find someone who understands and empathizes with them while avoiding scams by giving them the option to exclusively match with other neurodiverse users?

How should a dating app go about redesigning with autistic users in mind?

  1. Enable neurodiverse users to customize their dating preferences to prioritize the profiles of users who are also on the spectrum
  2. Adhere to neurodiverse accessibility best practices

In the case of Hinge, this is actually relatively simple.

Within Hinge’s on-boarding process, they take users through the step-by-step process of setting up their gender, religious, height, etc preferences. So the redesign here is just a matter of adding another prompt to the process.

For the purposes of this prototype, I added the step following the gender question solely for context.

Onboarding Prototype

Once you’ve finished inputting your attributes, you’re then able to control which user profiles to include or exclude in your ‘Preferences’ settings.

Again, this update would only require a minor addition to an already existing interface.

Preferences Prototype

Summary

The problem:

Just 1 in 3 people on the autism spectrum have ever been on a date, and just 1 in 10 are married for three primary reasons:

  • They have differentiated dating habits, leading them to prefer to date others on the spectrum.
  • Essentially every platform designed specifically for autistic users and their differentiated habits has failed due to an inability to attract a substantial amount of users.
  • Successful dating apps have ignored their needs, causing autistic users to become the victims of scams and incessant rejection.

The solution:

  • Integrate a feature on an established dating platform that enables users on the spectrum to specifically match with one another if desired. This would effectively improve the chances they find other like minded partners while avoiding scammers.

The Mission

If only one person reads this, and that person happens to work on the design team of a dating app and subsequently is inspired to implement features specifically for autistic users, then I will consider this to be a massive success.

As such, I’m asking everyone who was kind enough to take the time to read this case study to please share this information with their network. Unfortunately I don’t know any dating app designers myself, but the hope is that through the use of collaborative social networking, we can find some people who do and are open to exploring some of these concepts.

You can contact me at brandon.cherry93@gmail.com if you know anyone in the dating app design community or have any other thoughts regarding this information.