Using Tinder's swipe UI isn't always a good idea

Swiping left and right on pictures of adoptable children is dehumanizing.

Thanks to Tinder, swiping left or right on the photo of a potential hookup quickly became a common user interface element. But a new startup is reminding us that swiping right isn't appropriate for every kind of app -- say, an adoption app.

Adoptly wants to modernize adoption by letting prospective parents set up a profile, filter potential adoptable children by age, race, gender and a few other characteristics -- and then let parents swipe right or left to express interest (or a lack thereof). Indeed, the company's slogan is "parenthood is just a swipe away."

The initial reactions to Adoptly's Kickstarter pitch from Engadget's staff were visceral and overwhelmingly negative. A number of us decided it had to be fake, illegal or at the least tone-deaf. There's no way around it: The idea of a Tinder for adoption was repulsive to everyone I spoke to. But after doing some research, Adoptly seems to be aboveboard. The company's service essentially functions as an intermediary between interested parents and the many agencies representing children who need to be adopted.

And while the Engadget staff found the idea of filtering children by age, race and gender and then swiping away on the results to be rather abhorrent, it turns out it's a pretty common practice (minus the swiping, that is). A number of adoption agencies do similar things on the web; it's not hard to find a site where you can search through children by the same filters Adoptly uses and then click a button to express your interest. Prospective parents are encouraged to build profiles and complete background checks ahead of time, but anyone can search these databases.

A good example is AdoptUSKids. The project is run by the Children's Bureau (itself part of the US Department of Health and Human Services) and the Adoption Exchange Association, a national network to connect adoption professionals and organizations. Adoptly says it is also partnering with legitimate, government-backed organizations. If that's the case, it's hard to say the company is doing anything wrong; it's just acting as an aggregator and putting already-available data on adoptable children into an app.

So why did everyone here have such a negative reaction to Adoptly? Part of it might be the fact that no one I spoke with was looking to adopt a child; if you've been doing your homework, the notion of searching for kids by age, gender and race might not seem surprising.

But it's more than that: It's the way Adoptly frames its service. Using the Tinderlike UI, something that rose to prominence in an app meant for finding a hookup, feels wrong. That sense of wrongness extends throughout everything Adoptly is doing, from its tagline to the video on the company's Kickstarter page. At one point in the promo, a young couple is looking for their perfect child, swiping left and right as the voice-over says, "Just swipe right if you're interested or left to keep looking." It's a delicate choice of words for what essentially amounts to "I'm rejecting this child in need based on this photo and basically nothing else."

Adoptly co-founder Alex Nawrocki defended his company's choice of the swipe, saying, "We feel like the mechanic of swiping is such an ingrained part of culture that so many people are familiar with that it makes sense." That said, he also recognizes that some people aren't likely to be comfortable with this. "We understand that with any new technology there can be some hesitation or uneasiness about what'll happen, what it means, what it implies," Nawrocki said, speaking specifically about the swipe interface.

The video's insensitive tone extends to Adoptly's chat feature. If an adoptable child "likes you back" (which in this case means that the agency sponsoring the child accepts your request for more information), you can chat directly in the app. Adoptly says that all "liking back" and chat communication are done under the supervision of the foster care or agency responsible for the child. But whether you're chatting with an adoptable child or the agency, the video makes this extremely personal interaction into something decidedly less so. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be dropping an "OMG" and emoji when I'm presenting myself as a parent ready to adopt a child. In the Adoptly world, that's a perfectly reasonable way to behave.

Ultimately, the problem with Adoptly comes down to execution. For many people, a mobile phone is their primary computer, so having a mobile-native service for adoption isn't a ridiculous idea. And creating a database of adoptable children from multiple agencies could make the search process easier. But Adoptly's promise to speed up the adoption process feels hollow when you consider that you're still bound by background checks, in-person meetups and a host of various legal requirements before you can actually adopt a child. The app doesn't change any of that.

Another question about Adoptify is how it'll manage to stay in business, because the company says it won't be charging parents or agencies to use the service. "No money will be exchanged and we're not looking to make any money from the service," Nawrocki said. "We're merely providing introductions, so to speak." The Kickstarter campaign will theoretically pay for development, but at a certain point even the small team working on the app will need to draw a salary. The company either isn't thinking about that yet or isn't talking about the long-term plan.

Perhaps most crucially, though, the company's presentation and UI decisions make it hard to take seriously. Would pressing a button that says "I'm interested" be any harder than swiping? Not really. But trying to appeal to Tinder-addicted millennials by using the swipe interface feels disingenuous at best and irresponsible at worst.

Update, 1/31/17: A week and a half after Kickstarter cancelled the Adoptify campaign, the creators have come forth and revealed what many of us suspected: Adoptify is a hoax. It was created by Ben Becker and Elliot Glass as part of an "ongoing art project that satirizes our tech obsessed world and our cultural desire to make everything faster, easier, more convenient, and instantly gratifying, and raise questions about where we draw the line, or whether we do at all."

Becker and Glass previously worked on the satirical "Pooper" dog-poop-pickup app that gained some attention last summer. Pooper launched in similar fashion, with press releases emailed to various media outlets before revealing several weeks later that the whole thing was a joke.

Throughout reporting on Adoptly, we attempted to discern whether this was in fact a real company or a hoax but were ultimately unsuccessful. We regret the error.