In online dating, data dictates design as well as matchmaking

Believe it or not, there’s a lot more to the online dating industry than an algorithmic shootout over whose matching engine is the best. For Zoosk, a dating platform that’s about to celebrate its five-year anniversary, building the right user experience is just as important — if not more so — than helping someone find his soulmate. In that time, the company has learned to use data to deliver a service that works as a complement to users’ romantic lives rather than a black box that tries to do all the work for them.

Don’t get me wrong, though; algorithms still matter. In fact, Zoosk co-founder and Co-CEO Shayan Zadeh told me the company’s algorithms for exposing members to the right set of potential dates are still very much “the secret sauce in the belly of the beast,” and the company expends a lot of effort trying to get this part of the business right. Like most companies trying to match people with other people or content, Zoosk analyzes profile information, stated interests and intra-platform behavior in order to present members with the guys or girls they probably want to meet.

Shayan Zadeh

However, using big data to power matching engines (and even some more, shall we say, “experimental” user data analysis) is par for the course in online dating and studies suggest they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Zadeh acknowledged this, explaining¬†that “[Your] mental map of who [you] should be interested in is not the same as who [you actually] should be interested in.” Zoosk has data to prove this, which is why it tries to inject a little serendipity into its platform to break members out of the molds in which they cast themselves.

What a girl wants

To get to the next level, Zadeh said, a company has to be committed to developing products that help people use them more effectively. Meeting people you want to date is like going to the gym, he analogized: You know it’s good for you, but it takes hard work if you want to get good results. Zoosk tries to add the hookup equivalent of personal trainers, group yoga classes and other perks that make it easier and more appealing to get active.

“The magic is humans talking to each other,” Zadeh explained, “not computers picking [who you’ll date].”

Zoosk for Android

And here, too, understanding the data is critical. Take, for example, Zoosk’s decision to launch a native mobile site in 2009¬†when a decline in web activity suggested users were ready to make that transition. “Our big data told us, ‘You’re gonna have people migrate en masse from desktop to mobile,'” Zadeh said, so the company got active building a mobile site while others waited to see how things played out.

In another instance, Zoosk determined that men are more comfortable reaching out to potential mates than are women once they’ve been presented with a pool of candidates. So the company redesigned the method by which members interact. Instead of requiring members to personally reach out to someone who they’re interested in getting to know, the product asks if they’d like to get know this person and then sends the introduction for the member.

“That subtle shift in the positioning makes a huge shift in the number of people who actually get to talk together,” Zadeh said.

Social media is a mindset

But all this work really boils down to knowing your users and what they’re after in a dating site. Whereas dating giant eHarmony might appeal to the 40-plus crowd by promising users it will find their future spouses by picking out exactly the right companion, Zadeh said Zoosk is more tailored to 20-somethings who just want to meet people and maybe go on a few dates. “We were born in the social media age and and it’s visible in every aspect of our business,” he added. (Actually, the company began its life as an app on the Facebook (s fb) platform.)

This mindset manifests itself in product design, too. Zadeh says being social “is a different way of thinking about product altogether,” something learned from the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn (s lnkd) and the other companies that used the data at their disposal to build effective and popular social networks. Some dating sites market themselves as psychology companies, he noted, but Zoosk considers itself very much a technology company and it takes that part of the business very seriously.

Like a Facebook or LinkedIn, Zoosk wants to be a platform where technology enables more interaction among people in ways that feel natural and let the users dictate how those interactions progress. “[We want to] be the tool instead of being the lifestyle prescription,” Zadeh said. “… Our job is to make it easy on them and get out of the way.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Sweet November studio.