clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For Mobile Apps Like Tinder, Cards and Swipes Rule the Day

Why all your mobile apps may start looking like a stack of cards.

YouTube/Jono and Ben at Ten

Swipe right if you’re interested, swipe left to say nope. If the target of your snap judgment swipes right too — tada, you’re a match.

Such is life on Tinder, which presents would-be daters with a pile of virtual playing cards showing the faces of potential dates and a few tidbits of information about them. Flip through your cards and make an instant decision with the flick of your thumb. The options appear one face at a time, and if you ditch someone, you don’t get another chance to look in the scrap pile.

“The beauty of the swipe is navigating through the content is done with the minimum amount of motion,” Tinder co-founder and CEO Sean Rad explained.

“In general, on a browser or on a phone, you scroll and stop, and then have to go up or down to position and digest the content,” Rad added. “With swipes on Tinder, the act of navigating through content is merged with inputting an action on that content.”

Swipe right for yes, swipe left for no. Tinder now gets 800 million swipes per day and has matched 1 billion users.

Tinder is the leading example of a new sort of interface that is particularly well-suited for the small-screen mobile environment, where you can hold a phone in one hand and make an app do your bidding by touching your thumb to the screen. According to Rad, the inspiration for the Tinder UI came from piling stacks of Polaroids and playing cards, not from any previous mobile app.

Tinder hinges on this cards metaphor, and further, the swipe — which was added a couple days after launch, when Rad and his engineering co-founder Jonathan Badeen observed early users trying to flip over the top of the virtual stack of cards. Rad refers to their innovation as an “action-based interface.”

Besides Tinder, other card-swiping apps include Jelly, Swell and Weotta.

Instead of delivering endless content, virtual cards display the best possible piece of content, one thing at a time: A person you might want to date, a question you might want to answer, a podcast you might want to listen to, or an upcoming event in your area, respectively.

There are more all the time. A new app called Steller, launched Thursday, helps people tell stories through sequences of cards.

To be clear, Tinder’s design isn’t necessarily the direct antecedent to these apps, but they do have parallel designs and are all relatively new. “We came up with [the design] independently in Swell, and then found that this became a trend,” said Swell co-founder and CEO Ram Ramkumar.

The cards interface is seen by its practitioners as an improvement on the dominant format for online content for the past eight years — the feed or the stream. After the Facebook News Feed debuted in 2006, the Twitter stream followed. Each of those sites stacked new content in real time in reverse chronological order, are personalized to each user — and are nearly impossible to keep up with, or to finish. They’ve afflicted us all with a bad case of information overload.

“When Facebook and Twitter migrated Web to mobile, it was hard to rethink them so dramatically,” said Redpoint Ventures partner Ryan Sarver, who was formerly at Twitter and said in his new role as a VC he’s been bombarded with card interfaces and talk of card interfaces.

The first big mobile-first content app, Instagram, has kind of a stopgap interface. It’s still oriented around a feed, but you can really only consume one square picture at a time, kind of like a card.

In recent months, venture capital and design blogs have been all atwitter about cards interfaces: “Twitter, canvases and cards,” “Hypercard — Way Too Early,” “Mobile Apps, Card Interfaces, and Our Opposable Thumbs,” “Why Cards Are the Future of the Web,” “Pick a Card, Any Card.”

The gist of all these posts is that the metaphor of a card is great for delivering well-formatted information that’s readable at a glance. It’s an increasingly pervasive layout being put to use in the Google Now personal assistant service, in the Twitter platform, in messaging apps like Kik and in the new Facebook Paper app.

Rad, Sarver and others who care about app design argue that combining the card metaphor with the swipe action takes it to the next level. It’s not just about putting information into a nice little rectangle, but turning the whole thing into a choose-your-own-adventure game.

On the one hand, cards and swipes are simple and lively for users. But the interface has a happy flip side for companies who make the apps. “Every swipe is engagement data,” as Sarver put it.

That is, the fact that users interact directly with each piece of content means that Tinder can make modifications on the fly based on however that individual user reacted to a potential date to choose a different option for the next one.

Swell does the same thing. “Every listen/swipe interaction offers a signal to the algorithm that powers Swell,” said Ramkumar. “Aggregated across users, the signals form the basis for collaborative filtering.”

Perhaps this makes sense for any sort of mobile recommendation app — as long as users are okay with having their options narrowed to just a single one at a time.

According to Rad, apps that make use of cards but don’t fully include swipes are missing out. Of Facebook Paper, he said, “It’s in the right direction, but from our perspective the little nuances and how people interact is confusing.”

The ever-confident Rad takes it to the extreme — he thinks every mobile content app would be better off with a swipe.

“We’re not going to stray away from our core focus, which is social discovery, but I can think of 10 different ways you can leverage a double opt-in and an action-based interface to make ‘Tinder for blank.’ I think Tinder has shown that it works and it will be here forever,” Rad said.

So perhaps after information overload, our next Internet affliction will be a bad case of the swipe-happy snap judgments.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.