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Special: Superhuman Part II - Designing Software to Feel like a Game (with Rahul Vohra)

Special: Superhuman Part II - Designing Software to Feel like a Game (with Rahul Vohra)

Thu, 12 Nov 2020 15:18

Superstar past guest and Superhuman CEO Rahul Vorha joins us for a deep dive on how Superhuman applies concepts from game design to building productivity software. We're not talking points and badges — we mean hardcore, Unreal Engine-style technical innovations and Fortnite-level understanding of fun and mastery. It's a topic where Rahul has serious cred: before Superhuman and Rapportive, he worked as a game designer on RuneScape, the pioneering browser-based MMORPG. This is a topic every founder, engineer, product and even sales person should listen to. Tune in!

You can listen to Part I of our Superhuman story with Rahul here:

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Playbook Themes from this Episode:
Also available on our website at )

1. Game Design not Gamification. Good games nurture intrinsic motivation in players, in part because they’re fun. “Gamification” instead uses external motivators like badges, levels, and points to goad users into interacting with the product.

  • Game design combines goals and objectives, intentional emotional design, and the psychological phenomenon of flow. It forces the designer to consider, what is fun? To which Rahul’s answer is “pleasant surprise”.
  • Great game design creates intrinsic motivation: “doing things because they are inherently interesting and satisfying.” Adding extrinsic motivation like points or rewards can actually erode the desire to do a task.
  • Rahul’s Advice for product designers: “Pull back from user wants and user needs. Instead, design for fun.”

2. It's more important to consider how your product makes customers feel than what it functionally does for them. When designing any product, interaction, or experience, identifying the exact desired user emotions can be incredibly powerful.

  • How do you do this? Find opportunities where the product naturally delights, surprises, or gives users a sense of accomplishment - and find light-touch ways to amplify it.
  • Example: Inbox 0. Superhuman found that reaching Inbox 0 is one of the most emotionally resonant moments in someone’s interaction with their email. To amplify that moment, Superhuman uses beautiful imagery as a reward to trigger specific emotions when a user empties their inbox.

3. Democratizing powerful tools that were previously reserved for an elite class is a recipe success. Superhuman moved mountains to create that “10x better” experience before launching. Even when starved for resources, it can pay off in a big way for a startup to expend massive engineering effort to build a better foundation than the competition.

  • The team at Superhuman faced a challenge: How can we deliver the same speed and power that developers have in code editors to ordinary people in their email inboxes? To solve it, they spent 2 years re-writing large parts of Chrome to make everything faster. Now the Superhuman browser app is faster than any standalone email app experience and provides sub-100 ms results. The result: users don’t have time to break flow state.

4. Storytelling is everything. Don Valentine used to say “Money flows as a function of the story.” Storytelling matters across all dimensions of a startup: pitching investors, recruiting talent, selling products, building a cult-like following. On the podcast, Rahul ties rich detail and visuals to his core points.

  • When racing Lamborghinis: “you see the landscape rip by, you hear the scream of the engine, you taste burning rubber.”
  • When pitching his co-founder on joining: “I could see as the gears turned in his mind as he’s munching this pizza, increasingly slowly until his mouth ground to a halt.”
  • When describing engineers coding in flow state: “our fingers dance across a keyboard like we’re playing a piano.”

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That gives you a lot of cred when you like building software like games. It's like yeah, yeah, okay sure Everyone thinks they know about games but like rinse game is OG Welcome to this special episode of acquired the podcast about great technology companies and the stories and playbooks behind them I'm Ben Gilbert and I'm the co-founder of Pioneer Square Labs a startup studio and venture capital firm in Seattle and I'm David Rosenthal And I am an angel investor and independent advisor to startups based in San Francisco and we are your hosts Today we have superstar repeat guest Rahul Vora. Welcome Rahul. Awesome. Thank you for having me back Rahul had probably I don't know if it's exactly the most listened to episode of all time But it was a certainly a standout Episode when we released it David one was that last there was a June last June. Yeah, I think it was the finale of season five Wow another lifetime ago Truly well the last time Rahul was on our show many of you knew him for being the founder of the innovative fast email client Superhuman his frameworks for finding product market fit and how they did it at superhuman have since become Quite famous this year many of you may have heard Rahul speaking on Patrick show or the a 16z summit and elsewhere about a new concept How they think at superhuman about designing software like it is a game Today in true acquired fashion we are going to dive into the actual stories behind these concepts and how Rahul and the team at superhuman Have put them into practice as the product has matured from that initial product market fit that we talked about in the last episode To a professional or really even enterprise class suite of tools where they've rolled out some calendar functionality as well recently For you LPs we have something special today when we finish up here on the main show We are going to do an LP episode with Rahul a master class on fundraising Which for anyone who doesn't know not only has Rahul done this like a total pro with superhuman Really being thoughtful about the process and employing every tactic in the book for building a great company and Capitalizing it the best way he sees fit But also with his previous companies with reportive he actually also now has two funds of his own the most recent being an angelless Rolling fund and we will talk with him about that on the LP show Which you can get to by going to slash LP or clicking the link in the show notes Can't wait for that. Yep Our presenting sponsor for this episode is not a sponsor but another podcast that we love and want to recommend called the founders Podcast we have seen dozens of tweets that say something like my favorite podcast is acquired and founder So we knew there's a natural fit. We know the host of founders well David Senra hi David Hey, Ben. Hey, David. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for having me I like how they group us together and then they say it's like the best curriculum for founders and executives It really is we use your show for research a lot I listen to your episode of the story of akyo marita before we did our Sony episodes this incredible primer You know, he's actually a good example of why people listen to founders until acquired because all of history's greatest entrepreneurs investors They had deep historical knowledge about the work that came before them. So like the founder of Sony. Who did he influence Steve jobs talked about him over and over again If you do the research to him, but I think this is one of the reasons why people love both of our shows and they're such good Complements is on acquired we focus on company histories You tell the histories of the individual people you're the people version of acquired and where the company version of founders Listeners the other fun thing to note is David will hit a topic from a bunch of different angles So I just listened to an episode on Edwin land from a biography that David did David it was the third fourth time you've done polaroid I've read five biographies of Edwin land and I think I've made eight episodes of them Because in my opinion the greatest such a printer to ever do it my favorite entrepreneur personally is Steve jobs And if you go back and listen to like a 20 year old Steve jobs He's talking about Edwin lands my hero So the reason I did that is because I want to find out like I have my heroes who were their heroes And the beauty of this is the people may die, but the ideas never do and so Edwin land had passed away way before The apex of apple, but Steve was still able to use those ideas and now he's gone and we can use those ideas And so I think what acquired is doing what a founder trying to do as well is find the best ideas in history and push them down their generations Make sure they're not lost history. I love that Well listeners go check out the founders podcast after this episode you can search for it in any podcast player Lots of companies that David covers that we have yet to dive into here on acquired So for more indulgence on companies and founders go check it out All right David let's dive in to this episode with Rahul Oh indeed so great to have you back It's we were joking when we were preparing in a few minutes before this that You are now our Gold standard for guests that we tell all our other guests and prep you know Hey go listen to our episode with Rahul He is like the most thoughtfully prepared guest ever so we're so excited to have you back in now adopt your playbook into acquired itself Oh gosh well, I hope I live up to my own standard I'm sure you will such a cool topic to be talking about I mean we've gone deep on gaming history in and of its own So often here on acquired I thought a good jumping off point before we get into your specific principles that you use It's superhuman is let's talk about like what is a game? Sounds like a simple question Sometimes hard to define there are no fewer than what we got here like eight or nine definitions on Wikipedia From your perspective like how do you think about it? I like to use a definition that I came across in a book that is by the way the best on the topic The art of game design by Jesse Shell And you can get really complicated you can get really academic Even abstract about the definition of a game But in my mind Jesse puts it best A game is simply something that you play And this seems hard to argue with now there are all kinds of other definitions out there But I always come back to this one a game is something that you play Wait, so let me push on that a little bit like is guitar a game if I'm playing guitar or is that sort of a different use of the word play? I think that's a somewhat different use of the word play you don't play guitar with somebody else It doesn't engage you in the way that a game engages you I think playing a musical instrument is a different form of play But it's interesting at a more as we'll dive into over the course of the episode We'll see that it has a lot of the same properties of a game And the way that I like to Sort of chew on this topic is through the semantics For example a game versus a toy This is a a common question in academic literature on gaming We also play with toys Does that mean that toys are the same as games? I would say no in fact they are different because we use a different language to describe them A game is something you play but a toy is something you play with Now you could then go deeper and say well we play without our friends Does that make them toys And obviously the answer is no A toy is an object you play with it's not a A human being that you play with And so this kind of introspective interrogation can lead you to a really good definition But you can go deeper still so for example i'm fiddling with a piece of paper right now I'm rolling it up and i'm unrolling it just In order to keep my nervousness down now you could say i'm playing with it But it's not a very fun toy So you could also then observe that some toys are more fun than others And then you start to get to a definition like a game is something you play A toy is an object you play with But a good toy is an object that is fun to play with And then you start to get to the heart of the matter which is well what is fun anyway And again there's been a ton of research into what fun actually is Some people would say Fun is just pleasure To them I would say Well can you experience fun but not pleasure And the answer seems yeah probably not it would be really hard to experience fun but not pleasure I can't think of an example where that's the case But the contrapositive is not true there are plenty of pleasant experiences Imagine for example the relaxing head massage That few people would describe as fun So it turns out that pleasure alone misses a certain something special And the thing that it misses is surprise It turns out that fun needs surprise And in fact how a brain is hard-wired and a very neurological sense To enjoy surprise So we end up with the stack of definitions A game is something you play A good toy is an object that is fun to play with And fun is pleasant surprise Well perfect that is exactly what our next question was going to be which is In some ways I think the crux of the matter here Which is what is a good game Of course the classic definition on this is Previous acquired guest Nolan Bushnell from Atari Bushnell's law That a good game is something that is easy to learn but difficult to master How does that fit into your stack? There's a phrase for this I think that is necessary but not sufficient There are plenty of other things that are required in order to make a good game And you could go so far as to list hundreds of attributes There isn't really a minimal subset But I think it does involve more than those two factors So there are seven principles that we think of When it comes to what makes a good game at superhuman And those seven principles we think of them across roughly five different factors Things like goals, emotions, controls, toys and flow Bushnell's law talks a bit about goals And it talks a little bit about a related concept of mastery But it doesn't talk about how you feel when you're going through a game It doesn't talk about the nature of interaction with a game Whether it's truly a video game or it's a board game Or it's a piece of software that is designed to feel like a game It doesn't talk about the childlike sensation of wonder that you experience When you're playing with a toy And it doesn't talk about the psychological phenomenon of flow Which I personally think is one of the most important factors of what makes for a good game You really do have to draw upon the art and science of all kinds of feels Whether it's psychology, mathematics, storytelling, interaction design When it comes to making a great game You're obviously super well read on this front But you have some serious cred too Which you don't often talk about But you were a game designer before superhuman and reportive You were specifically a game designer at RuneScape, the legendary OG MMO Is that where you kind of hone these principles? I think that was the first time I put it into professional practice But I've really been obsessed with game design and the art of making games for my entire life In fact, the very reason I learned how to code And I started when I was about eight years old Was just so that I could make games I was finishing up a school day one day And both my parents were doctors and so they worked fairly late And so I did what any self-respecting nerd would do Which is hang out in the school library And once I'd finished reading all of the fiction books I started on the nonfiction books Pretty quickly found the coding section Because the predominance computer at the time in the United Kingdom was the BBC microcomputer Fortunately, the words started with B Otherwise my life would have gone down a completely different direction And I just read these books and I taught myself how to code And they were aimed for children These books were written for kids And so all of the motivating examples were designing your own games Whether it was an adventure game or some kind of action game And so that brought me into this world By the time I was about 18 years old I don't know if folks still believe in Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours But I'd spent 10,000 hours programming Mostly around creating my own games And then I went to the University of Cambridge to study computer science Once I left, that was when I joined Jaggx Which some people will remember as the creator of Runescape, which at the time Was the world's largest online free role-playing game And that was where I really cut my teeth professionally as a game designer I took all the things I'd learned Both as a passionate fan and player of video games As well as a hobbyist game programmer To creating quests and content for the players of Runescape And I can tell you it was one of the most fun jobs I've ever had And that was a crazy concept at the time Because if I'm remembering right This was well before most free to play So this idea of a game that was free was wild And was it also browser-based? Like it was flash in the browser And you didn't need to download some big heavy thing to run on your PC It was in fact browser-based And the clue is in the name, it was not in fact flash Few people know this, but Jaggx stands for Do you want to give it a go David? Java game experts, right? That was the colloquial interpretation The very original technical definition was Java graphical extensions So Andrew Gower, who is a resolute genius He was an alumnus of the computer science laboratory work Where I studied many years ahead of me Had created an entire graphical game engine That was capable of doing What now would look like rudimentary 3D graphics Imagine the PS1 area But it ran in the browser It ran in every browser of every library Of every school all across the world And that was all it had to do To capture that user-based that it did He was incredible I remember to nerd out for just a second For anyone who's programmed Java, there is of course An object model, you don't have to define what an object is It comes with it And everything inherits of this object oriented scheme Andrew said, no, this is too slow Because we're trying to do real-time graphics in the browser I am going to create my own object model in Java So he took Java the language But he completely threw away Java the framework Made his own And that was the thing upon which Runescape was built It was a real technical model at the time Wow, so was that technically a Java applet then? Oh gosh, now you're pushing way into them All right, I think it actually was at the time That's cool Well, this is a bit of a personal question for you But you talked about 10,000 hours of programming games And earlier you mentioned Flow And as funny I was just having this conversation with a friend Recently about Flow And I don't know what the technical definition is But the way that I always think about it is When you're able to lose yourself When hours can go by And you sort of come to And you don't realize that you've been doing the thing That you've been doing for hours And you have lost yourself Obviously this can happen playing games And I'm curious for you Does this happen to you? Do you enter a flow state when you're programming? I do Unfortunately, I have not been able to program Recently that much at all Our engine is probably wouldn't want me getting that close To the code base these days One of the things that I always ask people to do If they're getting interested in this idea of game design If they're trying to wrap their head around Flow Is this notion of inspiration What experience in your life Would you most want to share with others It's probably very unique Very few other people will have had access to it And for me it was one of those flow experiences So as you know I sold my last company Reporters to LinkedIn And being at LinkedIn wasn't easy Being acquired so to speak is is rather hard And as part of my retail therapy for myself I acquired a rather special car It was a Lamborghini Gallardo A super la Gera 570 horsepower Zero to 60 in less than three seconds Although without the sort of sterile way That a Tesla Roadster would get you there This is the most angry, loud way That only a naturally aspirated V10 would get you there You got to hang out with Jan from WhatsApp He's all about the naturally aspirated supercars Porsche specifically He is a super human customer So I will drop him a line So you can imagine this car It has gigantic air intakes At the front, a race wing at the back Everything that could be made out of carbon Was made out of carbon And I used to race this car These weren't sensible races on tracks This was madness in mountains and canyons And there is a certain speed Where something magical happens A speed where you stop thinking in words Because words are too slow Because by the time you've had that thought You're already around the corner And through the next valley And this is the speed where you and the car Become one, the car is you You are the car It's like human and machine and full synchrony And a speed where every sense is at capacity Because you see the landscape You hear the screen of the engine You taste burning rubber You can feel every imperfection Now this is the most extreme flow I have ever experienced And this is the experience that I most want to share with others Now of course I can't literally recreate that sensation But it was an underlying inspiration For why we built the fastest email experience in the world It's why the unifying theme for everything That superhuman does is speed And it's why we try so hard to engineer for flow And it was my first real visceral experience of it Now since then I've gone deep into To the academia behind it You mentioned how our subjective experience Of time changes And it can either happen in both ways It can stretch out forever Or it can flash by in an instant Both a symptomatic of experiencing flow And there are many other things that contributes to what flow is as well Well first of all I have to tell you If they ever remake Ford vs Ferrari And they're looking for a new opener They can just take your excerpt there And is that directly as the voiceover I started thinking about being in that car the way you're describing it I think it's a great transition to some of these principles of game design And how you sort of are embodying them in superhuman I don't want to be too dramatic here But like the closest I have ever come to being in flow While doing email has certainly been with superhuman So you know props to you and the team for I think what you just mentioned Engineering for flow And I may have mixed it up a little bit But I initially brought up that programming point Because I absolutely found flow When I used to do a lot of programming And it is really rare to be able to find A sort of non-engineering productivity app Where you can feel that sense of sort of flying over the keyboard And losing yourself in the creative work There is in fact a reason for this And this was my recruiting rant That I used to get my co-founder and CTO Conrad Irwin Who was by the way the first employee that we hired at Reportive To join me at superhuman I still vividly remember this for those of us who Have lived in or visited San Francisco This took place at the local kitchen Which is a little pizza rear in south of markets And we sat down and we ordered our pizza And I said to Conrad Has it ever occurred to you how unfair it is That we as programmers have the best tools in the world And I could see the gears turning in his mind As he's munching this pizza Increasingly slowly until his mouth grinds to a halt And he's like yeah And I said well there's a reason for this Because we as programmers Are the only profession in the world That gets to create our own software How unfair is that? No wonder we have the best software No wonder our fingers dance across the keyboard Like we're playing a piano We've wrote it ourselves Of course it's going to feel like an instrument How about we do that But for everybody else Let's take the things that we take for granted 100 millisecond response times Instantaneous search Command palettes Keyboard shortcuts Beautiful layouts Typhography as a first-class citizen Designed that reports separately And is a thing unto itself Let's take all of these things And bring them to everybody And that was when he said yes Okay I'll join you on this crazy idea of superhuman It's interesting to talk about The engineering behind games And specifically superhuman as a game And thought about this But when you're talking about runescape And rewriting large parts of Java Just to get it to do what you want to push The bleeding edge of what the tools could do So that you could have this game experience And so many games do this I mean this is what Epic does This is Fortnite This is so much of the bleeding edge of tech It's pushed forward by gaming You guys did the same thing With superhuman in the early days Right? Like you rewrote large parts of Chrome's scripting engines Right? Like all in pursuit of this speed catapult We did And I can give two examples One will be in pursuit of speed The other was more sort of in pursuit Of beauty for the sake of beauty We on the speed side Had to figure out how to download Store and index pretty much all of your email In the browser itself Now you can use superhuman in the browser You can use superhuman as a native app Rather shockingly The browser experience Is no slower than any other experience It is in fact faster than any native email experience A core part of the Electron further Native app We do use electron Now Electron by itself doesn't solve the problem Electron by itself doesn't give you an easy way To do a full text search locally And if you're trying to get faster than Google One of the biggest companies of all time That has spent untold amounts of money To ensure that you are never more than two miles away From a server on their CDN Well how do you do it? If you're in the browser A server on Amazon Let me tell you Isn't going to cut it So we had to figure out how to work our magic And we spent No joke this took nearly two years Of time To figure out how to download store and index the email In the browser Such that when you search for an email Yes it is searching remotely on your gmail server But it is also simultaneously searching in the browser And merging these search results in real time Oh I always wondered That's how it goes so fast And that was an example of where We just had this insane speed requirements That required us to build an entirely new stack of technology Yeah and for any of us that are formally from Outlook land I think that the key concept that you just mentioned there Is merging together Like I've been a superhuman user for years now Did not realize you were doing that In an Outlook land I mean I would have I would search And local search would be relatively fast And then there would be another button I could click That's continue searching on server Or something like that And I always felt like Time for breaking flow Thrust into this completely different new experience That you know Okay cool I guess while that's searching now I'll pop open my phone and do some tasks on there Or switch open another application Yeah I never realized you were sort of doing both concurrently And stitching them together And it does turn out to be this ridiculously hard problem It's actually a computer science hard problem How do you merge two infinite lists on the screen Without having things like pop in What if one email actually only exists in one of those lists How do you stage them It gets real gnarly real fast The other example David that you may have been referring to Is actually to do a typography in fonts Now I'm a big typography nerd And I really wanted I'll avoid using too much jargon as I go into this example But I really wanted everything to line up With vertical rhythm on the page And this is really hard to do If you're just doing basic web programming It is in fact impossible If you have different fonts You have graphical elements Things of different sizes To have everything line up on let's say An 8 pixel or a 6 pixel grid But we figured out how to do it We dove into the Chrome source code Reverse engineered the font layout engine And then built our own layout framework Actually entirely in CSS Because we wanted this thing to be super fast as well So now whenever we want to lay something out We have a little tool that ingests the font It spits out all the metrics This is the height of the ascender This is the excite This is the cap height This is the length of the descender And generate typography nerd Generates the CSS To automatically lay this stuff out So that it looks beautiful A lot of the reason why the website And why the superhuman app Looks the way it does Is absolutely everything Is on a sub pixel grid To perfection Because of the CSS framework And for superhuman Customers who are listening And maybe they're curious to actually see What I'm going on about If they hit command k baseline I believe this is an internal tool But I think it is exposed to users It will actually turn on a sub pixel grid And you can see everything layout On that frame Ken confirm it is in production There we go That's so awesome What a great Easter egg to have in the product All right speaking of Easter eggs I'm going to take this opportunity To transition us David I'm working on my transitions here I'm dealing with Jakal Just working on it He's getting becoming a pro So Rahul I noticed one thing that you didn't do To try and give me flow While I'm working through my email Is build a reward system Where I'm earning points or badges As I'm working through my email And having a gamified experience What is your framework to think about When that works If that's a game Is that not a game Why is that craze Sort of less popular than it was in years past So what we're really talking about here Is gamification And what we practice at superhuman And where my passion lies Is game design Game design is not gamification It is not simply taking your product And adding points levels Trophies or badges And you kind of alluded to this But it was a big deal 10 years ago And it's really faded away And the reason is It didn't work And to understand why We really have to understand Human motivation And the difference between Intrinsic motivation And extrinsic motivation Makes total sense And without Jumping to too many conclusions here I'm just going to assume that Me getting through my inbox On its own is an intrinsic motivation Whereas you would be introducing Extrinsic motivators If you introduce some kind of Badging system or something And that I would guess is just not As sort of sustainable And during motivating Exactly And the perhaps Counterintuitive conclusion Is that extrinsic motivation Can actually undermine Our intrinsic motivation We can be less enthused To do a thing Once for being extrinsically motivated This is why sometimes If you take someone who has a hobby And then you pay them to do it They start to lose interest in the hobby And there was this fascinating study That I think we should go into Because it really outlines this And in the clearest way possible Back in the 1970s Researchers from Stanford They recruited children These were young kids They were aged About three to four years old Now the thing that made all of these kids In common Is that they were generally Interested in drawing And some of these kids were told They would get a reward As certificates with a gold seal And a ribbon And some of these kids were not told About any reward And so they did not expect one Or even no one Now the researchers then Invited all of these children Into a separate room To draw for six minutes And then afterwards They would either get the reward Or not depending on which group they were in And over the next few days The children were observed To see how much they would Continue to draw by themselves Now here's the thing The children with no reward Spent 17% of their time drawing But the children who expected a reward The ones who had received compensation So to speak They only spent 8% of their time drawing In other words The extrinsic reward had literally halved their motivation So You can back out of this into intrinsic motivation Into extrinsic motivation And the definitions are as follows With intrinsic motivation We do things because they are inherently interesting And satisfying With extrinsic motivation We do things to earn rewards And achieve external goals And that's the problem with rewards They massively undermine intrinsic motivation And that's why gamification does not work And when gamification does work It is because the underlying experience was already a game To go back to runescape When getting that next piece of loot In Diablo fashion Or leveling up in World of Warcraft fashion Feels good It's because you're actually playing a pretty decent game In Superhuman When you hit in Box Zero And you feel that emotion of that joyous imagery And that feels like gamification And it works It is because Superhuman itself was designed like a game Not because there was a game mechanic layered on top So if I could sort of extrapolate this And for founders out there listening Or product designers or product managers Who want to work this into their own product Is it basically find the opportunities Where your product naturally delights someone Or naturally makes someone feel a sense of accomplishment And find light touch ways to just amplify that Yes And zooming out If what we're trying to do is sort of tie this up Into a message for product designers for designers For product managers I would say this As an industry and I was taught this way as well We were brought up to obsess over what users want Or over what users need But if you think about a game Well no one needs a game There are no requirements other than be fun And so I would really advise us as an industry So pull back from the succession with user wants and user needs And instead to design for fun What do you want your players to feel What is the emotional path for them to get there And how does your software Your business product if that's what you're building Take them along the path And that's why one of the key principles That we think about at superhuman Isn't just goals It isn't just toys It isn't just flow But it's also emotions How can you design for the emotions that you want your users to feel And this is another area where I've gone really deep I mean there are literally countless emotions And we get really nuanced at superhuman Is it inspiration? Is it triumph? Is it longing? Is it peacefulness? Is it tranquil? Is it sentimentality? Like there are so many different things people could feel And how are you designing a journey so that people actually feel them Three quick things One It feels like it's also kind of an element of just respecting your users too And their intelligence Right? If you have the gamification style Feels like a low respect for your users Like, oh, we're going to give you some flashy star For doing this thing Good job It's like you're treating them like those elementary school kids Whereas give them awesome tools And then trust that they're like they know their goals If their goals line up with your goals Like they're going to use them well Thus let them discover it is kind of like trusting them right? 100% And I don't mean that we shouldn't use techniques Like points levels, trophies, badges These are very powerful techniques They just can't be the only thing They are a good addition to an already well designed game And we're in fact building this right now at superhuman We are working on a streaks feature that should be out Either next week or the week after just a few final polishing touches to put on it And this is going to celebrate whenever you hit in box zero And every week in which you hit in box zero That streak is going to count up There'll be a little achievements area where you can go to to see your all-time streak And some other interesting statistics Like the achievements dialog in the world of Warcraft If anyone's ever played that How many things you've ever archived How many emails you've ever sent into home Cool So yeah, I mean like your initial reaction is cool Because now you're kind of curious you want to see Yeah Now it's not the points of superhuman But it's there and it adds this rich layer of depth and texture That will make the experience even more compelling And stoke even more curiosity Listeners, David and I didn't know this going in But now that we've been told this information We have to ask some more questions about it How did you decide that that was a good idea And not something that would do what the study did That you mentioned and make me less motivated to do the intrinsic stuff in superhuman We tested it in having having just spent the last two minutes saying Silicon Valley does it wrong Let me share where Silicon Valley does it right We tested it in good old fashioned product management style We didn't write any feature code What we did was we wrote a bunch of SQL scripts We then analyzed the metrics We then created a little email feature What does that mean? Well, we took a sample of the user base We emailed them these insights for their own behavior when it comes to using superhuman And then we analyzed the results that came back in We did about three rounds of this Switching up the stats that we would email Analyzing the sentiment Really digging in deep with the customers As I've described on our previous show As long time listeners will know I'm a huge advocate of interviewing thousands of people And really understanding what they're feeling So we did all of that the traditional product management stuff with this feature And what we learned is that some stats aren't particularly compelling Some stats are highly compelling The streak stats in particular is one that people love to know about And so we gained conviction that if we built this in in the right way And if it wasn't too front and center But if it was a celebratory moment for the people who achieve it It wouldn't actually undermine the intrinsic motivation It would in fact reinforce it And so the devil as they say is in the details But we got to the level of conviction that we'd be able to do this Without undermining any intrinsic motivation What is the story of the inbox zero images? Because I would imagine some of the motivation behind that feature is the same How did you guys come up with the idea and put it in the product? This comes back to our emotion pillar of game design And the principle of designing for nuanced emotions In box zero We fairly quickly learned I would say it took us about nine months to reach this realization Is one of the most emotionally resonant moments In someone's interaction with their inbox And this is actually a good example of where my intuition was wrong I did not know this as a founder going in Because as a founder starting the company I so rarely hit in box zero I receive thousands of emails every single day In any given minute I'm often receiving five or six emails So before we'd invented split inbox which took years to get to It was an impossibility for me to actually hit inbox zero So I simply didn't know But in interacting with our earliest of customers We quickly realized that inbox zero was one of the most emotionally resonant moments And it was a point that we could reinforce with emotional design So if you're designing for emotion You have to figure out what kind of emotions you're going for And there are many models of human emotion The most famous is Plutchix wheel If I would have magically flash up an image in people's minds They would recognize it but essentially it has different emotions that are across from each other For example joy is the opposite of grief And you can blend adjacent emotions to create more complex feelings And it gets really cool So when you combine joy and anticipation You get optimism And you combine joy and trust you actually get love But at Superhuman we use a much richevo vocabulary We actually use the emotion wheel by the Hunto Institute for entrepreneurial leadership Because this emotion wheel has all of the nuance that I think a game designer needs In order to actually practice emotional design And so at Superhuman We care deeply about the emotion of joy And joy has many sub facets We design for things like enthusiasm and excitement how we use as come to us super excited We design for optimism and hopefulness how we use as want Superhuman to improve their lives And we design for pride and triumph Because when you hit in Boxero Especially if it's the first time in years You rightly feel like you accomplish something special So when you do hit in Boxero That's when we decided to show you this stunning and gorgeous imagery And we do this specifically to widen the emotional repertoire Beyond joy into love and surprise So there are sub-emotions in love and surprise That we deliberately lean upon with our choice of in Boxero imagery We pick images that are peaceful and tranquil That's in the love end of the spectrum we create images rather that create a sense of longing and sentimentality That's also in the love end of the spectrum Folks will remember the Arctic Fox Or the squirrel that just runs across the screen or there's one where you have Almost natural geographic-esque images of the balloons over Myanmar And push into surprise images that amaze and inspire a sense of awe A lot of our cityscapes are like this Very high contrast, very high dynamic range And designed to give you that sense of flying Almost of having superpowers over this entire city scape It's so funny how it can sound like It's a little highfalutin as we talk about it here on this show And reflecting back on like if I had to really really describe the split second emotion that I feel when I see it When I do hit in Boxero and in one of my inboxes Yeah, you're absolutely right It is very nuanced and I don't ever make the connection to Oh, I'm flying over this city but I certainly feel an amount of power control tranquility that I certainly didn't feel when I saw the full list That's the point so I'm glad to hear it's working There's something it's been like noodling in my mind the last couple of minutes as you've been talking And my question is like Being someone who thinks so deeply about all these very nuanced emotions as you are designing the product Does it translate to your personal life? Like do you notice that yourself as a human by studying this stuff that you are more aware of your nuanced emotions? Or they totally separate and this is more of an analytical skill Versus something that would just sort of naturally start happening to you as a person It's funny you should mention that because yes, it does definitely help in personal relationships Whether those are happening at work or at home One of the things that I strongly advise any founder to go through is Conflict training or training on how to give feedbook or how to give difficult feedback or how to receive Difficult feedback and for customers of superhuman I have recently sent out a newsletter on just how to do this One of the things that I focus really hard on is Separating the objective description of the behavior upon which I'm trying to give feedback Hey, you turned up 45 minutes late for our dinner reservation Let's say or hey this work had these specific issues of quality with it from how it made me feel And it's very easy especially in a non-work setting when for whatever reason most people don't hold themselves to the same level of accountability When it comes to communication that they do in a work setting It's very easy to let those things blur into each other So if I'm having a disagreement with my significant other at home I do force myself actually to use this formula I say here is the very specific thing that this is the behavior that I have issue with which I'd like to talk about And I try and describe it very dispassionately You know what a camera would be able to see is always my rule of thumb And then I say this is how it made me feel Now here's the part where it gets really hard It's very easy to start using passive words I feel attacked, I feel unsupported, I feel let down Well guess what? These aren't really emotions These are passive descriptions for what the other person might do And it's really hard not to use these things Because that's what we want to say What we should actually say And once again I'm just going to give a big up to the hunter institute for entrepreneurial leadership There's hundreds of emotions on that wheel What we actually want to say is something like I'm feeling lonely Or I'm feeling disappointed Or I'm feeling anguish Or whatever it is And you can go to the emotional wheel and look it up And so in particularly difficult disagreements I've actually just gone to the wheel You know I've said what I want to say is I'm feeling attacked But I don't want to, I know that's not your intention So that's a very unfair word to use So what I'm instead going to do is I'm going to go to the wheel I'm going to go into what is probably the anger section of the wheel And look up the appropriate emotion And so bringing this full circle bend Absolutely, this kind of discipline that you get from being a game designer Can also make you a better manager And can also make you a better partner It's fascinating Fascinating We talked about a lot of these principles that goals and rewards, emotion, touched on toys and fun and flow But this is really one that I don't think we sort of prepared for coming into this conversation But I have certainly experienced in other areas of my life we're being forced to study emotion And have a greater vocabulary around emotion Really can help you in interactions with humans of any flavor in any setting To help you better articulate how you're feeling So it's very cool to see you bring that to software As we sort of work toward the end here One big question I had is like If you're listening to this podcast and you're not a product designer or a product manager Or the CEO of an early stage product focus company Do these principles, how do you apply them outside of just a product role? And could they be interesting to people in other areas of company building? I think so This set of principles across goals and motions, controls, toys and flow Really is about experience design So if you think about the onboarding experience of superhuman There's not really much software in that experience But we did look at the whole thing through these lenses If you didn't even work in technology Let's say that perhaps you were a realtor selling houses or getting folks to rent an apartment As now many of us here in San Francisco are, I happen to own a condo just down the road And I think about the experience of perspective tenants Coming to look at my condo through these lenses of game design What is their goal? What emotion do we want them to feel? How can I hit every single sense of their emotions as they come in? It sounds weird, but does it smell good? Does it look good? Does it feel good? Literally do the things that you touch feel good And to double click on one of those, let's take the sensation of smell And I've been renting out places for a long time This is a trick that I've been using since I was in my early 20s When I read my first few sales books I would put a vanilla scent in the kitchen To evoke memories of baked goods, perhaps when you were a child And your folks would bring back a little baked treats I would put a lavender scent or a similar scent in the lounge To evoke perhaps being in a meadow or in some other really relaxing place And so yes, the point is that you can take all of these little tools that we have as game designers And apply them to any experience that you're trying to design So Rahul, you've talked about a lot of very nuanced and incredibly well thought out elements of the product here Toward the end of the show, we always like to give guests an opportunity to talk about where people can go And check out the work of the person who's been interviewed So what do you want to say to listeners? Well, thank you Ben. What I would say is for folks who have listened to this Maybe they're excited to try superhuman or they have an email problem And they really wish that they could get through their inbox twice as fast as before Sustainably hit in box zero Head to sign up there We do have a big wait list It's more than 350,000 people at this point But what I shall say is that for listeners of this podcast Members of the acquired community I would be more than happy to jump you to the front of the line When you sign up in the box where it says how did you find out or hear about superhuman Just enter the acquired podcast and we'll make sure that we skip you to the front of the line And get you onboarded as rapidly as we can Sweet Love that Rahul, thank you Well, LPs, you can join us on the other side We're going to be talking through a masterclass on fundraising with Rahul And for folks who aren't sort of as familiar with his background He's literally the perfect person to tackle this critical topic Since he's now started two companies, he's done YC, he's not done YC, he's had an exit He's raised seed rounds, big growth rounds, funded the company himself for a period of time He's running his own angel fund with Todd Goldberg Where they also just raised a rolling follow-on fund via angel list Rahul has raised and not raised capital all across the spectrum And we're really excited to dive in with him on that So if you're not already an LP, click the link in the show notes or go to So Rahul, thanks so much and we'll see you on the other side Thank you