Online Match-Making with Virtual Dates

Users of online dating sites often struggle to find love because the sites themselves make it more difficult than it needs to be. To the rescue: Virtual Dates, an online ice-breaker from Jeana Frost of Boston University, Michael Norton of HBS, and Dan Ariely of MIT. Key concepts include:
  • Technology influences the tone and trajectory of relationships.
  • The interface of online dating sites should be improved to help people filter better.
  • Virtual Dates is an experimental interface that allows couples to communicate in real time using colors, words, and images.
  • The idea of virtual spaces for natural interactions may have applications for managers and entrepreneurs.
by Martha Lagace

Literally millions of people have found dates through online match-making services, so who says the Internet is isolating? The problem for many users, however, is that initial matches are often imperfect—even frustrating—because the services may shoot Cupid's arrow in the wrong direction.

"The current model is artificial and static, and far removed from everyday social interaction," says Jeana H. Frost, who along with Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely is taking an academic look at online dating and how it can be improved. They describe their results in a new HBS working paper, "Improving Online Dating with Virtual Dates." Frost, now at Boston University, wrote her PhD dissertation at MIT's Media Lab on the topic, discussing the broader issues of impression formation, navigating options, managing expectations, and informing decisions in mediated environments. Norton is an assistant professor at HBS in the marketing unit while Ariely is a professor of management science at MIT.

Even when we have well-articulated stories about the kind of person we want to meet, we’re often wrong.
—Michael Norton

While fascinated by the psychological underpinnings of online interactions, Frost and Norton are also exploring the social implications of people seeking relationships online and the possibility for technology to influence the initial tone and trajectory of relationships. One obstacle they noticed is that the main dating sites are designed as if looking for love is a variation of online shopping.

Rather than just study the problem, they also came up with a possible solution: Virtual Dates.

The researchers began their work by talking to online-dating-site users about their experiences, supplementing these conversations with surveys advertised on several commercial dating sites. What they found was a high level of dissatisfaction.

"People spent hours and hours and hours a week online to generate one cup of coffee with one person. That's not a very good system," says Norton.

What's more, users often found that the person they were meeting for the first time was not what they had expected. "By starting online, some people had experiences they wouldn't have had if they had been able to see up front what someone was like," Norton says. "So we wanted to explore ways to improve the experience and help people filter more effectively."

Online daters sitting behind a computer, says Frost, "have a lot of time to ruminate and form ideas about potential partners that may or may not coincide with reality, because they're not getting any social feedback."

Adds Norton: "The other issue is that in online shopping you are searching for product attributes: If you're buying a toaster you may not know exactly what kind of toaster you want, but you know if you want two or four slots. With people, even when we have well-articulated stories about the kind of person we want to meet, we're often wrong."

And there is no check box for the attributes we really want to know most about, he says, such as, is this a kind person? "So people search based on income, ethnicity, religion—these things are important and they are all decent predictors of whether you'll get along with someone—but there's just something missing."

What's missing is that subtle, essential information that emerges when you actually meet someone. Enter Virtual Dates, the solution they propose to improve online dating services.

Making The Connection

Here's how it works: After two dating-service customers find what looks like a good match, the couple meets over their computers for a five-minute Virtual Date, a kind of online ice-breaker that allows two people to communicate in real time using colors, words, and images.

In the process of using Virtual Dates, couples may pick up more cues about each other than they would through a standard, one-dimensional chat client. Is my date responsive or funny? Are they on time? How do they relate in real time? How does it feel to sit (virtually) across from them?

If we give people different kinds of content, are they going to navigate toward common interests?
—Jeana Frost

The Virtual Dates interface was actually a project out of the MIT Media Lab from its Sociable Media Group. "It was a nice tool," Frost says. "It allows for real-time interaction; it has a cute interface for people to converse, gesture, and even 'chase each other.'" These social indicators help to better mimic an offline experience.

Although a number of dating sites come with chat clients, the interfaces are often quite impersonal and lead to vague conversations, according to the researchers. Virtual Dates goes beyond those by providing pictures around which people can socially interact, as if the couple is going to a museum together and chatting about the art work.

"We wanted to give people something more specific to talk about, help them find common interests and points of divergence, and give them some content for discussion. Ideally we wanted to simulate a standard first date," Norton says.

To test the product, Frost and Norton conducted speed-dating events to introduce couples who had already met through the interface. Their goal was to see if Virtual Dates made any difference in stoking a romance. Preliminary data indicates that it may.

"In our experiment, two people would arrange a Virtual Date and then we would use a speed-dating event to bring them together so we could compare the online impression to the offline impression," says Frost.

Applications For Entrepreneurs

If Virtual Dates could lead people to love, the concept behind it—creating virtual spaces for easy, natural interactions with others—may also inspire non-dating-related applications for managers and entrepreneurs.

For example, the researchers believe, another application could include products that provide more social interaction for the elderly.

"In these environments, can they self-sort to find others?" asks Frost. "If we give people different kinds of content, are they going to navigate toward common interests? In a virtual space maybe they could actually find others by virtue of interacting in an environment with topical areas."

Advice For The Lovelorn

With their extensive research on the subject, Frost and Norton have advice for online daters.

"Remove yourself as much as possible and don't invest your ego in one particular date," Frost offers. "Remember that it's very easy to get carried away and imbue a profile with overly favorable qualities. My advice is to try to stay calm and resist being invested in one person until you've actually gotten to know them. Avoid long e-mail correspondences because they tend to heighten expectations."

"It also takes resilience to go on a lot of dates and spend time actually arranging to meet rather than spending hours a week just searching. The people who go on a lot of dates are the people who find someone. In some sense it's a numbers game."

New users especially should keep in mind that online dating is not in the end so fundamentally different from regular dating, adds Norton. You try to find people, you try to meet them. "It's the people who think it will be quite different from their regular experiences who end up being the most disappointed …. In online dating, the same sorts of people who are online are also out there offline. It can help you sort, but ultimately it takes work, effort, and a little luck."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.