Fostering real connections through personalized expression

Fostering real connections through personalized expression

How can we redefine online dating to focus on meaningful interactions rather than just looks?

Handheld is a handwriting-based dating app that seeks to reimagine the way people connect in the digital age. In a world dominated by digital communication, Handheld brings the authenticity of handwritten notes to the forefront of online dating. By infusing the charm of personal penmanship into the dating experience, Handheld aims to create meaningful connections that go beyond superficial swipes. The platform's unique approach offers users a novel way to express themselves and connect on a deeper level.

Role: Product Designer
Timeline: 3 weeks

Understanding the problem space: Interviews
To better understand the problem space, I interviewed 11 single college students with experience on dating apps.

I conducted 11 interviews with college students aged 19 to 22, all of whom were single and had prior experience with dating apps. This group represented a diverse range of sexual orientations and gender identities to ensure varied perspectives were captured.

The interview encompassed a series of questions, covering various topics and domains.


Questioning the Concept

I explored interviewees about their thoughts on the concept and overall experience of online dating.


App Enjoyment and Frustrations

Interviewees were asked about their favorite aspects of current dating apps and areas where they found the experience frustrating or lacking.


Challenges in Compatibility

To understand barriers to meaningful connections, I asked about what factors the interviewees thought could be hindering them from connecting with the most compatible people through these apps.


Expression and Communication

I delved into how the interviewees preferred or wished to express themselves and engage with others while using dating apps.

Interview findings

The findings from the interviews highlighted a few key insights:

Shallow Conversations and Fleeting Matches

A common observation was the prevalence of shallow interactions and conversations on dating apps. Many interviewees mentioned that their interactions lacked depth, with conversations often revolving around basic topics, hindering meaningful connections. This led to the perception of a lot of their matches being an option for a low commitment "hook-up" or casual meet-up when bored.

I barely meet anyone from a dating app in real life because we never get past the conversation stage. Trying to talk with people you don’t know anything about except their looks and some short, vague prompt on their bio like “I’m overly competitive about: everything” is hard. It’s usually small talk about their school or work and it feels like a waste of time and I get bored.” – Z, 21, Straight (she/her)

Superficial Perception and Photo-Centric Bias

The interviews revealed a recurring sentiment among interviewees – they often felt their identity reduced down to their physical appearance due to the emphasis on photos in dating apps. This focus often led to superficial judgments, leaving users with a sense of being defined primarily by their looks rather than their full identity.

“As a woman, I hate feeling like I’m objectifying myself or am getting objectified, but I still feel like I have to put the photos where I look the most conventionally attractive and appealing to the male gaze, just to get the opportunity to get to know some people..." – C, 21, Bisexual (she/they)

problem statement
The challenge is to create a platform that promotes more meaningful interactions and empowering users to establish real connections based on their authentic selves and shared interests.

In the context of online dating. individuals often face barriers that hinder the formation of meaningful relationships, largely due to an emphasis on surface-level conversations and physical appearance This can lead to feelings of frustration and contribute to the reinforcement of objectification.

The challenge is to create a platform that promotes more meaningful interactions and empowering users to establish real connections based on their authentic selves and shared interests.



How might we allow users to be authentic and “be themselves” within the constraints of a templated profile?


How might we facilitate more genuine and meaningful conversations and connections between matches?

Competitive analysis

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the current dating landscape and identify areas for improvement, I analyzed the strengths and limitations of the three most popular apps currently: Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder.



  • Utilizes unique and distinctive prompts to encourage creative and meaningful profile content

  • Implements the "Your Turn" feature, reminding users to respond to conversations

  • Requires users to upload a specific set of content: 6 photos, 3 prompts, and other basic information

  • Offers the ability to initiate a conversation thread with anyone, even before a match occurs


  • Limited interaction with suggested/"most compatible" matches unless users have a premium account

  • Possibility of encountering repetitive or unoriginal prompts due to the limited and surface-level selection



  • Offers three modes catering to different needs: Bumble Dat, BFF (meeting friends), Bizz (networking)

  • Empowers women to make the first move in heterosexual matches

  • Provides comprehensive filters for refining profile results

  • Imposes a 24-hour time frame for initiating conversations, prompting timely engagement

  • Utilizes prompts on profiles to enhance user profiles


  • Can lead to a one-sided experience if the woman doesn't message first within 24-hours

  • Strict 24-hour time frame for initiating conversations may lead to missed connections for busy users



  • Introduces a "Super Like" feature to express heightened interest in a potential match

  • Relies on mutual blind liking for successful matches

  • Utilizes geo-location for matching users based on their current location

  • Offers a user-friendly, intuitive, and un-complicated interface


  • Some interviewees found that the 9x16 photo size is awkward and unflattering

  • Carries a reputation as a "hook-up" app, which might deter those seeking more serious relationships

  • Heavy reliance on photo-based swiping can lead to superficial judgments

Potential users

I recognized three distinct user profiles spanning various demographics, which significantly influenced my design process by enabling me to customize the user experience to align with the specific needs and motivations of each group. Embracing these personas guided the design journey, aiming to accommodate a diverse range of users. The result is an app that not only caters to their requirements but also provides a platform for genuine self-expression and meaningful interactions.

The Casual Socializer 💃

The Casual Socializers aren't seeking anything serious and is interested in casual dating experiences. They are open to meeting new people, socializing, and enjoying relaxed outings. They appreciate an app that lets them connect with others who share their laid-back approach to relationships.

The Commitment Seekers 🌹

The Commitment Seekers are actively looking for meaningful, long-term relationships. They prioritize compatibility, shared values, and deep connections. They value authenticity and want a dating app that focuses on fostering substantial conversations and facilitating genuine connections.

The Open-Minded Adventurer💌

The Open-Minded Adventurers are open to various types of connections and is in a phase of exploring different relationship dynamics. They're interested in casual dating, friendships that might evolve, and connections that align with their individual preferences. They seek a dating app that embraces diversity, inclusivity, and a range of relationship possibilities.

From the start, I was drawn to the idea of using handwriting as a means of connection for people.

I love that from handwritten stories and letters, you can seemingly draw an image of what kind of person they would be – based on the way they dot their I’s or cross their T’s. I explored how dialogue might be started, delving into articles such as The New York Times’ "The 36 Questions That Lead to Love". These collections of ideas and visual inspiration not only guided my ideation process but also provided invaluable insights into potential solutions, features, and elements to incorporate into the design.

Wireframes and flow

I created lo-fi wireframes and flows which outlined the apps key structure and user interactions. By translating ideas and concepts into tangible wireframes and flows, I was able to pinpoint elements and navigation that aligned or strayed from the user needs and objectives.


The initial pass of the prototype provided a platform to identify strengths, weakness, and areas for refinement in the navigation and visual design, steering the product towards a more user-centric and efficient direction.

User testing & Feedback
I conducted user testing on the initial prototype to uncover areas for improvement in both interactions and design.

I identified key areas for improvement, such as adjusting the color scheme from muted green to vibrant orange, reorganizing elements to establish clearer hierarchy, and eliminating lines under handwritten text for a cleaner aesthetic. This iterative process ultimately contributed to a more visually appealing and user-friendly experience.

Design systems
Final design solution
Exploring potential matches

Profiles present users' handwritten names, their unique stories, and their basic information. Photos remain hidden until a match and conversation is established. Users can express interest and send personalized messages along with their likes, allowing their personality to shine through. By placing basic information at the profile's base, the focus remains on the handwriting and stories, prioritizing genuine connection over initial judgments based on job or education details.

Discovering connections

Photos are revealed after both users exchange messages. This approach encourages users to delve into meaningful conversations before physical appearances come into play.

Profile management

Users can preview how their profile appears to others via the "My Profile" tab and conveniently modify their story, basic information, and photos in the adjacent "Edit Profile" tab within the same section.

Writing the story

Engaging story templates, inspired by mad-libs, offer a carousel of options spanning humor, depth, and personal anecdotes. These templates encourage users to authentically showcase their personality, providing opportunities for conversation starters and real-life meet-ups.

Handwritten expressions

Users can choose to craft their answers directly within the app on a digital canvas or upload photos of their handwritten responses on paper. Leveraging technology similar to mobile document scanning, Handheld intelligently recognizes the text and integrates it into the chosen space within the story template.


Reflecting on this project, if given more time, I would delve deeper into understanding diverse user profiles and their unique interactions with dating apps. A key challenge that I'd be excited to further tackle is exploring how I can further push the conventional boundaries of modern dating apps, offering users a fresh and engaging experience, while still ensuring that the platform remains inviting and user-friendly.

Through this project, I've also learned a lot! Just as I would love to continue exploring, navigating within the constraints of a traditional dating app framework was a fun challenge. I also learned the importance of iteration and user testing, as even subtle adjustments like color changes have a significant impact on the experience.

© 2023 GINA LEE

© 2023 GINA LEE