How Superhuman Applies Game Design to Create Emotion

Dear subscribers,

Nobody has spoken more about using game design and emotion to craft great products than Rahul Vohra, founder of Superhuman (the fastest email experience ever made). I had the pleasure of speaking to Rahul about:

  1. His background in gaming

  2. Applying game design to create emotion

  3. Championing craft and delight in products

Below are lightly edited notes from our conversation.

Rahul’s background in gaming

What were your favorite games growing up?

There are so many games that spring to mind — two of my favorites are Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo and Goldeneye on the N64. 

Super Mario World created an incredible fantasy world with just the right amount of narrative for a child to follow along. It told the story of the Koopas in the context of a larger world with fortresses and castles. It took what worked in the original Mario games to another level while keeping what made these games special in the first place.

A classic example of this is the jump button, which is very aphysical.

If you run and jump in a Mario game, you can still use the d-pad to control Mario’s direction. Of course, no jump works like this in the real world. But it's also what makes the game fun to play. You can course-correct and narrowly avoid danger.

Goldeneye on the N64 is another game that I enjoyed. It took the first-person shooter and made it accessible to people in the living room. This ushered in a whole new era of friends being able to experience first-person shooters together.

I also love MMORPGs such as Runescape and World of Warcraft, which let us build communities and real-life friendships. These games appeal to all four types of players by letting us indulge in exploration just as much as fighting the environment. 

I think you got your start in game development at Runescape?

Yes, I was a game designer at Runescape and it was one of the most fun jobs that I ever had. It's kind of like being a product manager. You're generally running the project and pulling together the disparate pieces (graphics, sound, art, and design). You're also the one programming it all together.

Applying game design to create emotion

Most PMs focus on solving customer problems, but you also emphasize how important it is to think about how the customer feels. Can you share more?

Emotions are the foundations of our memory. 

If you want your product to create amazing memories that people will talk to each other about over dinner or a glass of wine, you need to analyze emotion.

That's why I'm a fan of creating a large vocabulary to discuss emotion. There are multiple models that you can use, the most famous being Plutchik's wheel. Plutchik identified eight core emotions along with the ability to blend them. For example, you could blend joy and anticipation to get optimism or joy and trust to get love. In practice, however, I found that this wheel is just not nuanced enough for game and product design. 

Nowadays, I use a model from the Junto Institute of Entrepreneurial Learning:

At the center, there are emotions like joy, love, and surprise. Beyond that, an emotion like love might split into longing, romantic love, desire, tenderness, or peacefulness. The third level is where the emotions get really subtle, and that's where game designers need to play. At this level, love might split into caring, affection, sentimentality, passion, and other nuanced emotions.

If we're doing product design correctly, then we should be able to create these emotions in the minds of our users. 

I loved your a16z interview about Superhuman's game design principles. Briefly, they are:

  1. Goals must be concrete, achievable, and rewarding. 

  2. Design for nuanced emotion.

  3. Create rapid and robust controls.

  4. Make fun toys and combine them into games.

  5. Help users achieve flow — make the next action obvious, give feedback with no distraction, and balance skill with challenge.

How do you apply these principles when you're building a new feature at Superhuman?

We try to be mindful of the emotion that we're trying to create.

We ask questions like:

  1. What do we want people to feel when using the product overall?

  2. What do we want people to feel on any given screen or interaction?

  3. Does the design create the emotion that we want?

For example, you probably know about our Inbox Zero images. For emotions, we care deeply about joy. And if you look at the Junto wheel, part of that is designing for enthusiasm, excitement, hopefulness, optimism, accomplishment, and triumph. So we selected Inbox Zero images that play to these six nuanced emotions.

Okay, so you actually pick the right images to create those emotions.

Exactly. You can also use the wheel in reverse, by the way. You can identify the negative emotions that people are feeling without your product and try to address those. 

For example, we know that many people who come to us for the first time have negative feelings about their email - feelings like helplessness, anxiety, annoyance, guilt, and even powerlessness.

We can then take those emotions and flip them on their heads and say, well, how do we help people feel the opposite? 

How do you validate what people are feeling when using the product? Do you just ask them?

You can ask them, but this is where as a designer developing a really finely tuned and very open degree of empathy is super important. 

I feel what customers feel to a very really large degree and can accurately predict how they're going to feel about certain product changes. That's the kind of thing that comes from really knowing your customer and ideally being your archetypal customer. So staying in close communication with them over time is really important.

It comes from experience and doing the work over a long period.

Speaking of close communication with customers, I still get emails from you about new features. Do you have people replying — is that how you stay in touch?

We do. We have a very active communication line with our users over email. In any given week, we receive thousands of emails from our users. We respond one-on-one to each person and tag and triage all the feedback verbatim in a database.

At this point, we've recorded nearly 80,000 unique pieces of feedback in customers' words and also tagged the emails threads that they sent it on. So when we make progress on a piece of feedback, we're able to close the loop on that thread even if it's years down the line.

In many cases it is years down the line because we have to pick what we work on extremely carefully. But when we do, we make sure to close the loop with people, even if it's been a long time. 

It makes sense that email is your main feedback channel since it's an email product.

My personal experience with Superhuman

I'd love to share my personal experience with Superhuman. When I go through my emails, I use keyboard shortcuts to mark stuff as done, and it feels great to get to Inbox Zero. But there are two parts that I struggle with:

  1. I get anxious that I marked an important email as done because I went through my inbox too fast.

  2. I don't enjoy going to my starred inbox because I have to write thoughtful replies for all the emails there. It feels like work.

Thank you so much for the feedback! It's super helpful. If your challenge is that your starred inbox is out of sight and out of mind, then maybe the starred inbox split isn't for you.

I don't run a separate starred split. My starred items are in my inbox and I set reminders on each starred item which essentially acts like a due date. 

So if you keep the starred items in the inbox, do you still see inbox zero?

I do because I snooze them. 

Oh, I didn't know that you can snooze them!

Yeah, for example, you can press H for this email and snooze it to Saturday or the weekend.

So this is a different way of processing your inbox. It works best for me because I don't get the scary long backlog of starred items. I'm just forcing myself to make the decision on the spot or punt it till later.

This is great - I've never used “remind me” before but will do so moving forward.

Building a product culture that cares about craft and delight

Ok, let's talk about product culture. There's a natural tendency to ship an MVP as soon as possible instead of taking the time to make something truly delightful.

How do you balance between speed to market and craft at Superhuman? I know it took a while to ship the first version.

We need to answer this on two levels:

  1. What is personally enjoyable for you?
    What's going to get you out of bed in the morning?
    How do you want to spend your life?

  2. What's important for the company?

Craft is super important to me. It's what excites me every day. It's what's fun for me to work on and teach. So my deliberate decision with Superhuman was to pick an area, industry, and product where that's a competitive advantage.

High craft doesn't matter for a lot of things. High craft matters for a productivity tool that you'll spend hours using. It matters for something that costs $30 a month while the next best thing is free. 

So I have aligned the product, industry, and positioning with what I'm personally very passionate about. It's what all of us at Superhuman are passionate about. We want to build the most delightful, beautiful products that we possibly can and have craft make good business sense.

If you're working on a company that's not familiar with game design principles, how do you go about trying to introduce people to these concepts?

Great question! Please send them the videos, the highlights, and link them to our blog.

I think Superhuman is a great example of using game design to create emotion and ship delight. We've managed to completely change how people think about an industry that was considered stagnant and done.

I'm not a change management expert by any means. I make change by running a company, which is easier in some ways and harder in others.

I would start by educating, aligning, and even just asking if changing how we do things is even on the table. Maybe people don't want to change things, or they already have a very specific idea of how they want things to be run.

How do you not lose out on the craft?

The better you are and the closer you are to the craft, the more people who have craft will want to work for you, the more they'll respect you, and the more they'll listen to you. So that creates a virtuous cycle that is going to keep you sharp.

How do you not lose the craft? Keep working on it, carve out time to stay sharp and learn. 

You can also join a company where craft is a core value. For Superhuman, our top value is to create delight. I think we are the company that personifies craft, but there are others out there.

Thank you for your time, Rahul. I love using Superhuman, and I can't wait for you guys to expand to the entire Microsoft Office suite or something. 

We’re well on our way. In the meantime, there's a lot of really cool stuff happening in the product. We're working on Calendly-style scheduling assistance and lots of other exciting features.

I want to finish by saying thank you. Thank you for being so open and candid with us with your feedback on Twitter, and thank you for taking this time to run me through your inbox!

If you enjoyed this, follow Rahul on Twitter and check out Superhuman’s blog.

Also, check out my post on Four Product Principles that drove Instagram’s Success.