Dating Couch: Couch Potatoes in Space

Dating Couch broke up with the internet. We hope it finds what it’s looking for elsewhere in life. But for now, we can’t go on together.

It’s Friday Night. Or at least it will be soon. And you look across the lonely apartment, lonely refrigerator full of everything a person could possibly want. The carpet is clean; the fish tank bubbles. The Netflix is sitting by the TV.

And the couch sits empty.

Canape in Camilo Castelo Branco House, Famalicão, Portugal.

(With such a couch one’s singleness would never be drawn into question †)

Being single can be a real pain. To use a long outdated and increasingly asinine literary construct, I quote the lyrics of a song. “Desperado” by the Eagles reminds us, “And freedom, oh freedom well, that’s just some people talkin’. Your prison is walking through this world all alone.” Although relationships can be trying and difficult at times, I theorize that it takes approximately 2.5 months of singleness to forget whatever the last person did and realize it’s just not fun being alone.

A marketplace of online destinations has erupted in their promise to find love, friendship, or organic copulation. Pick your gender, pick your preference, and connect. These all succeed to a degree, and fail just as much. Long hours can be spent sending out emails, chatting with someone only to learn that you have no chemistry whatsoever. The level of respect conveyed by users on these sites can at times be a bit underwhelming. Horror stories abound, where people figure out that their love is married or completely misrepresented themselves.

A new player in the world of finding special connections online can be found with Dating Couch. They offer a clever slant to making a connection. You join the site, find someone you’d like to connect with, and sit on a couch and talk.

I have to say it’s kind of welcoming in a way. I’ve often wondered if anyone in the cybernets can get people past the glaringly abrasive introductions, quick exchanges of 411’s, and nonreciprocating chat partners. Sitting on a couch with someone is kind of a clever psychological trick. It gets people past the dull and despondent internet malaise and into active conversations. It’s friendly, flirty, and warm.

Dating Couch did a few near phenomenal things which I would like to take this moment to commend them for. My favorite is that resisted the temptation to include both an email and chat feature. They include only the chat feature since we all know it delivers the messages anyway if the person is away. The next stellar beyond the stars feature is they provide a simple personal information profile form. I don’t have 20 mins to fill these things out. They just get the basics and let me make for the couch sessions. What’s more, they pull info from my profile and create a nice short blurb summary for me, so that I don’t have to. The other noble and valiant thing DC does is auto add contacts. If I interact with someone, they are added to my contacts list. In other sites first you chat, then wonder if it’s OK to add her. If you do it too early you’re a creep, too late and you’re a passive male. The auto add feature lowers the barrier of connection. Just like a couch.

As might be expected from a new site still very much in Beta, disaster strikes as well. And this with a fury that could contend with many a scorned woman. It strikes first with the work flow during registration. The three most important thing for DC is to get users to A) Sign up, B) Fill out their profile, and C) Sit on the couch and talk. Step A is mostly kosher, though my test partner bemoaned not being able to use her favorite user name since they don’t allow underscores. After registering however, I had to hunt a bit to find the great profile form I raved about earlier. There are four aspects to filling out the profile. A one liner statement, a paragraph statement, photos, and personal information. The personal information is a lengthier questionnaire that has multiple questions. I suggest prompting the user to fill out each of these upon sign-up with a frame by frame prompting. A suggested order is, first Photo, next Personal Info, then Paragraph statement, and finally the one liner. Also, tell the user there are four steps until their portfolio is complete, so they know it won’t take all day.

The personal information page has a series of improvements that could be made. I list them as follows:

  • The I am seeking option only lets you select one choice. Some people are seeking a variety.
  • I’m a guy but I have the option to say I am voluptuous. I was very tempted to select it.
  • It’s just kind of odd that I can change my birthday.
  • The I am best described as option has a ton of potential. It basically takes everything eHarmony does and consolidates it to one of 16 choices. My guess is that each of these map to the 16 personality types described by the Myers-Briggs test. An improvement here is to provide a test so people get a more accurate categorization. Then provide the option to put people on the couch who are more likely to be friends or romantic couples based upon their personality types.  The current self identification is fine, but including an option to take a test which will make it more accurate would spiff up the site a bit.

The Profile page is pretty clean, though it has a few oddities. The most obvious is that the profile pic shows up below the fold of the screen. When a web page first loads what you see is above the fold, what you have to scroll down to see is below. For a dating website placing a pic or thumbnail at the top left or right of the page is a near requirement. Though an argument could be made to do otherwise, I don’t think that’s the slant DC is shooting for. I’d move the pic higher. Also, DC takes a thumbnail of your default pic. Much to the angst of my couch and test partner, you don’t have the ability too select your own thumbnail. It’s selected from the center of the pic. If it’s a full body pic it’s likely to zone in the midsection. Another small quirk with the profile page is it appears that you can sit on your own couch. The buttons aren’t grayed out or inactive. Instead there’s a pop-up box telling you not to sit on your own couch. Best not to include an active link if you don’t want it to be pressed.

A feature of the profile page is the Personal Info summary. It provides a brief paragraph about you based upon your responses. It’s so nice that you don’t have to reiterate everything again. The drawback is that the sentences are as bland as one could ever imagine. It reads, “I am in such a such location. I eat berries. I have two feet and a harp by my side.” A great improvement would be to add character to it based upon their responses. In particular try to not have every sentence start with “I am.” E.g. “At 6’2″ I tower over my counterparts. I sculpt my slick athletic figure through long hours in the gym.” Going over the top could be cool here, since everyone will know that the words are from a template. Another opportunity is to shame or poke at people when they don’t fill out part of their profile. Currently it just omits the info from the summary. I say use this to give them a public flogging. E.g. “I have no religion other than contemplating the cold desperate monotony of my life.” This is a great way to prompt people to fill out their profiles as well as providing chuckles along the way.

The other aspect of the profile page that needs a bit of improvement is the Settings. Here we have four different links, the Edit, Change Password, Change Auto-Block Settings, and Change Privacy settings. I’d like to explain what each of these in turn does, but I can not. They all go to the exact same form. I’m a big fan of having one link per destination per page. In this case we have four of them all glopped together and pointing to the same place. Having just the Edit link at the top should be fine, so long as it’s generally clear which settings can be changed.

Once you land on the Change Settings form, through any number of pit holes on the profile page, you’re allowed to select a variety of blocking options. The most outlandish is that the only distance restriction is based upon country, (pun intended). I’m sure this is a facet of being a new social networking site still gaining users. Over time I expect they’ll add more granularity based upon location. Missing from the settings is the option to delete your profile altogether. I know social networks want users, but allowing people to delete their profiles helps reduce junk and test accounts. It also improves the overall experience of active users. Another curiosity of the block users feature is the age restrictions. It has two drop down boxes where you select the upper and lower limits of the age you’d like to be connected with. By default it’s set to Any. On the screen it reads, “Block Users Younger than Any,” which makes no sense to me. Instead I suggest using something more descriptive like, “No lower age limit,” or maybe sincere, “I love people of all ages,” or funny, “I like em young.”

Blocking is actually my least favorite part of this otherwise wonderful couch, I mean site. Your selections of who you’d like to block appear in large font on the public profile page. It makes the restricter look like a total putz. Let’s say I don’t want to date women with children, or I’m 45 years old but am only willing to date 18-22 year olds. It gives off such a poor vibe that no one would ever talk to me. A novel solution to the dilemma is as follows: don’t give men the option to block anyone, except based upon gender. DC advertises on its home page that it’s women friendly in that they can see who viewed their profile. Other than this feature the only other woman friendly feature I found is that they aren’t required to include their age in their profile. In my opinion that’s not very woman friendly. Why not go the whole distance and give them exclusive access to the blocking features? Let’s face it,  dating sites are inundated with guys looking for love. The women are bombarded by a splattering of perves each more despondent and contemptible than the next. Guys don’t need restrictions and rarely find themselves desperately trying to escape the advances of lovestruck Juliets. Thus, it keeps guys from looking as if they’re restrictive dweebs, and everyone expects women have their restrictions. Problem solved.

A few final tidbits relating to blocking revolve around the auto blocking feature. If a user is blocked based upon age, and then that restriction is later altered so that they would be included, that user has to be manually unblocked. Although having a blanket auto unblock feature would likely be too permissive, auto unblocking only those that were auto blocked would probably be OK. I.e. If the user manually blocked someone then don’t auto unblock them, but if the person was auto blocked due to the blocking rules, then the blocked status should change as the rules are updated.

And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for- The Couch. Or to use a slightly modified movie meme, “Dude, where’s my couch?” The couch is the crux of this site. It’s comfy, cozy, and inviting. But where is it? When I log in I see a typical list of menu items: Profile, Search, Messages, Contacts, and News.  Profile we already discussed, Search is where you can browse pics of people’s torsos for new Contacts, Contacts is in fact a happy list of Contacts, and News is the site Blog. Messages however, is where you have a chat interface with the option for webcam and sending and receiving pics. It’s the couch! My earnest behest to which I entreat DC is this: Scrap the yawning functionality of the label Messages and run with the couch theme for everything it’s worth. This is your site, your core, your distinguishing gimmick in a world of online meeting places. In the words of my test partner, “the site just feels nicer… sit on someone’s couch… the cam’s there, easy to use.” And she continues, “I already feeeeeeeeel flirty!” To which I reminded her she always feels flirty, but that’s beside the point. In short, replace the label Messages with, “The Couch” or just “Couch.” Also, perhaps it can be on the top or second from the top of the navigation list. Hence forth in this article I’ll refer to the Messages page as the Couch page.

We look for potential friends on the Search page, which has an I’m Feeling Lucky button. According to my test partner it completing ignored her blocking requirements. That should be an easy fix. The button could also incorporate the quick and dirty personality match suggested earlier.

The way you land someone on your couch is simple. Nav to their profile page, typically through the search functionality, and click the sit on their couch button. Currently there are two pre-couch communication methods as well. The first being to Message them, the second is to Wink at them. Seeing as how I’m on a quest to rebrand the Message functionality with the Couch, I’m for getting rid of the Message and Wink buttons. Wink was always on the chopping block. I know Facebook has poke, OK Cupid used to use woo, but now uses wink. All of which are nonsense ways to say you’re thinking of someone. I would move wink to the chat interface and alter it so that it’s similar to the Buzz button in Yahoo IM. So here’s the new suggested model for couch etiquette. You find someone you want on the couch. From their Profile page you click on the Sit on their Couch button. This takes you to the Couch page, currently called the Messages page. From there you can message them. They can then elect to join you if they wish. The Wink and Message buttons are not on the profile page at all. The original sit on the couch link has been changed slightly. If you enter someone’s couch room, then you’re status is updated to sitting on their couch. To leave someone’s couch there should be a button on the Couch and Contacts pages giving you the option to leave their couch.

A word about Contacts before we continue with the couch. As mentioned, under the current system if you wink, message or sit on someone’s couch, then that person is now in your contacts. With the suggested changes above, contacts are auto added if someone sits on another person’s couch. On the contacts page itself, the buttons beneath each profile will change,similar to the profile page. The Wink status is now gone. On the main section of the contact listing is a big button saying Go to the couch, or something to that effect. This goes to the same destination as the current Send Message link. If the person is already on the couch, then beneath it is a button giving them the option leave the couch. The sit on the couch, leave the couch links will be replaced with status update text indicating whether they’re currently on the couch or not.

The time has come, the lights are low, the Champagne is uncorked- the new acquaintances are on the couch. At top they have thumbnails of each others’ torso. At the bottom is a chat interface. Top right is a button to begin the video chat. And so the chatting begins. Both are a little nervous and so things are a bit awkward. You know how first dates are. This first date however, has a bevy of awkwardness contributed to it by the clumsy mechanics of the couch, which is more akin to the couch in your garage. Getting straight to the meat and potatoes, when I had the video interface on and was chatting with my test partner who was, “feeling flirty,” the chat interface was beneath the fold of the screen. Then she says, “Did you see that?” Knowing her I realized that I missed some sort of cleavage flash or something of that nature. As the couch now stands, when you’re chatting you can’t see the video screen. This is a design issue that can be fixed by better using the space. In particular, the high level synopsis of the person could be located to the right of their pic, as opposed to beneath it. Somehow or another the video screens need to be visible while chatting.

Along with all couches in the garage, they need some improvement. In particular, the chat appeared to lag. While my chat partner was droning on and on about me needing a better profile pic, (Women!), I was trying to get her to log off and log back in to see if the chat history is retained. After the fact we realized that the messages weren’t coming in real time. Having the messages be delivered real time is a critical issue that needs to be working 100% of the time. I was trying in vain to find new and creative ways to get her back on the task of evaluating the site as she was la-de-da’ing about profile pics. Once we got past that, we were able to ascertain that the chat history is stored indefinitely. This is fine for now, but at some point DC needs to include an archiving functionality. As it is now, all chats will be saved in the same window. Removing and storing elsewhere last week’s chat, or last day’s chat, or month, would be great. Also, once the chat window was full it overflowed into the background a bit. Some HTML/CSS should fix that up.

The cam is great as far as chatting goes. It doesn’t have an option to accept someone’s cam or not. What this directly translates to is the guy who uses it to flash as many women as possible. It needs to prompt the other user to accept the cam of their couch partner. In the same vein, turning off the cam isn’t prompted as well. We didn’t test every use case but there are a few cases that should be considered. If the cam user leaves the couch page, their cam should turn off. If the person watching the cam leaves, it should prompt the cam owner that they’ve left the couch and give them the option to turn off the cam. With my partner the cam was innocuously left on, but I wasn’t able to determine how accidental that was.

The couch feature and profile page in general needs an auto refresh feature to notify you when a new message comes in. Yahoo or Gmail tells you that new messages have arrived without having to check for them. They also include refresh buttons to get the absolute latest. DC has neither refresh button nor the AJAX style notifications. It’s functional for now, but the real time aspects will spiff up the site significantly.

I’ll give some lip service to CouchCat, which is like Tom is to Myspace. That is, my first friend. He’s also a bot which tends to repeat everything I do. If I wink at somebody I’m notified by CouchCat that I did in fact wink at someone. If I sit on someone’s couch then the same happens. If a serious overhaul doesn’t happen to CouchCat then he’s going to be about as popular as Microsoft’s Clippy. CouchCat is supposed to help encourage the ambiance of romance. He should be the pestering nuisance of your 9 year old sister when you’d rather be alone with your date.

DC gives the option to set your theme for your profile. It only changes the color of the foreground though. The background retains the DC blue. Some of the themes are on the needs improvement list, and they all should either alter the background color, or at least not clash with it. Not a pressing issue for now though. The theme that’s not currently included is setting a theme for your couch. This is the moment of romance. You’ve enticed a prospect into your domain, being able to customize this page would be some serious wizbang. I’m also a fan of have the profile pics on top of an actual couch, with lamps in the background, and other customizable necessities. One complexity that could be added is to choose who’s couch you’re on, yours or theirs. This would add a different angle to the couches, but kind of a fun one. Whoever sits first sets the shared couch theme, but it can be changed later. From there, the next step would be to allow people to design a couch theme together, adding various background options and couches. So each person would have their basic couch theme, and then the option to design a new one with the people they sit and talk with.

Before signing off, I’ll mention the wink feature again. I’m not a big fan of it, but perhaps the concept could be altered into something useful. Allow people to give a bottle of champagne, or have a girl leave a shoe on the couch. If I get a message that Charlene left a candle by the couch, or Martza left cookies and milk, it sets the tone of what awaits on that couch. The possibilities of items are endless, from jokingly random such as leaving a herd of goats, to intimate and suggestive. So that would rework the Profile options to include ability to the leave an item on the person’s couch. As a not so inconsequential aside, this would leave the door wide open to sell the actual physical items. So if you leave a bottle of Champagne, you can purchase it for them and in turn send it to them. Bonus points if you can send it to them with or without letting the sender know their address. That could be a whole new cushion to this ever growing couch.

A few technical snippets. The site currently only supports entering the full domain name with the www. If you omit it then you’re hosed. Many users prefer not typing the www, so that should be fixed. I believe the DNS manager needs to be configured to accept both. The webserver can then be set to redirect from one one to the other, depending on which you prefer. My preference is to omit the www in all urls. The other sysadmin relating tasks is that the notification emails ended up in my spam box. Ah the joys of being a new website. It takes some effort to get Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail to recognize new domains.

Dating Couch is a great site. Among the many features that they succeeded in, they did best in this one thing. Going live. Or Getting Real, as our friends at 37 Signals would remind us. That is, get the major features working such as security, path A functionality, and a cursory design. Then bring the site live, add a feedback button, and keep at it. Before long, I expect Dating Couch to be a major player in meeting new people online.

† Couch was found here, uploaded with permission and attribution.