Swipe yes or no: is life really about binary choices?

The swipe-right for yes and swipe-left for no have become a familiar touch screen shorthand for decision making. But is life really that simple?

These days, swipe right for yes or swipe left for no have become a familiar touchscreen shorthand for decision making. Getty Images
These days, swipe right for yes or swipe left for no have become a familiar touchscreen shorthand for decision making. Getty Images

Over the years, touchscreen devices have taught us that certain gestures will probably give us certain results. If we “pinch out” then we will zoom in on a map or a ­photograph; if we swipe down on a list, that list will be refreshed, dragging in new stuff from the internet. The widespread adoption of these user-experience (UX) mechanics has seen them become second nature for people of all ages, right down to toddlers making their first digital adventures.

A more-recent addition to the set is swipe right and swipe left, gestures of approval and rejection derived from the dating app Tinder which have (at least according to Tinder’s marketing department) become “iconic”. It’s hard to argue with the claim; the phrase “swipe right” has seeped into popular culture in a way that “pinch out” or “swipe down” certainly ­haven’t. Swiping right has become a symbol of hope and expectation.

Such deep-seated feelings are rare in the world of technology, so it’s not surprising that other services have sought to adopt Tinder’s swipe. A few days ago, LinkedIn launched a new scheme to help people find mentors who might be able to advise them, and vice versa. The idea behind the scheme was well-founded; according to LinkedIn, 90 per cent of its senior-ranked users are keen to pass on their knowledge to others.

But the mechanism the company used in the scheme’s roll-out in involved swiping to facilitate matches; as a result, it was described in the media as “a Tinder for business advice”, evoking an unethical scenario where teacher-­pupil relationships overlap with romantic liaison. ­LinkedIn rebutted this, calling the Tinder comparison “misleading”, stressing that its goal was to make “quality, mutual interest-based recommendations” – but it raised the question of whether services have a tendency to lazily use the Tinder swipe to pep their products.

“Swiping is a delightfully simple way of indicating preferences,” says Andy Budd, UX guru and founder of design consultancy Clearleft. “But like all interaction paradigms, it’s open to misuse. Designers need to think about whether the swipe-right pattern is the right one to use for their product – not only from a usability perspective, but from a cultural one, too. Because as long as the pattern is associated with Tinder, swiping left or right may give off the wrong cultural connotations.”


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It’s hard to see “swipe right” ever uncoupling itself from associations with dating. Some have questioned the efficacy of swiping; they say Tinder’s popularity has resulted in a “paradox of choice” where endless swiping leads us to become paralysed by the pursuit of perfection. But from Loveflutter to the Muslim-focused Muzmatch, from OKCupid to Bumble, dating apps have been unable to come up with anything as intuitively thrilling as swipe right, and have found themselves adopting it. It’s hard to believe the idea is only five years old; as Tinder’s chief strategy officer Jonathan Badeen told Wired magazine, he stumbled upon the idea in 2012 while emerging from the shower. “[I wiped] the mirror because the room was steamy, and I saw myself … all of a sudden it just clicked.”

“That story always felt to me as if it was made up,” digital consultant Dan Barker laughs. “The other story is that swiping emerged from the process of sorting through cards, or even CVs, so you end up with a pile of good ones and a pile of bad ones.”

It’s evidently an efficient sorting method, and Tinder has extended it into non-dating spheres with Tinder Stacks. A bolt-on service to Apple’s messaging app, iMessage, it allows users to put together “stacks” of pictures, send them to a group of friends and have them swipe right or left to indicate their preference. But Stacks revealed the limitations of the swipe as a voting tool; it’s difficult to choose your favourite of a series of things (whether it’s outfits, meals, destinations or whatever) because you don’t know what might be coming up next.

It also makes it clear that the addictive feeling associated with Tinder has nothing to do with the administrative process of liking and disliking; it’s about the euphoric matching moment when two people discover they have swiped right on each other. Replicating that in a non-­dating situation seems impossible, but that hasn’t stopped dozens upon dozens of start-ups from trying.

In recent months, we have seen a medieval strategy game called Reigns using the swipe; Patook and Peanut adopting it as a means of finding platonic friendships; Whale, a question-­and-answer app, using it to allow people to select questions they’re interested in (or not); Papr letting students and post­doctorals assess academic papers with a swipe; Jobr allowing us to give prospective employers the yay or nay; and Wydr changing “how people interact with art” by getting them to accept or reject artworks. But this kind of thing goes back years; we have seen an app called Crave apply it to food; BarkBuddy for dog adoption, Stylect for shoes; even a “Tinder-style” method of insuring your belongings from a company called Back Me Up.

When a service called Adoptly launched earlier this year, where prospective parents could swipe right or left on children up for adoption (“parenthood is just a swipe away”), it was soon revealed to be a satirical art project, but it skewered its target very well: those companies so desperate to lock on to the success of Tinder that they make inadvisable choices.

“You often see this,” Barker says, “where patterns become established, people copy the patterns and shoehorn them into their business, even if they don’t suit it.”

There seems to be an assumption that we, as consumers, have neither the time nor energy to cope with anything more than yes-no, binary decisions; the truth, however is that often the world is a little more complex.

“If a problem needs solving,” Barker says, “there’s a lot to be said for just trying to find the best way to do it.”

Published: August 10, 2017 10:44 AM


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