How Superhuman sells behavior change for $30/month

Superhuman is the new darling of Silicon Valley and productivity geeks worldwide. They promise “the fastest email experience ever made” and showcase testimonials from prominent customers citing how much time it’s saved them and how it’s made them more effective. This has led to a waitlist of thousands and a customer base willing to pay $30/month for access to their app.

Despite the attention, there is still confusion about why Superhuman has been successful so far. The main reasons people cite are the elegant design, UI responsiveness, and “exclusivity” factor. But I believe their success comes from a clever set of techniques that combine to change the behavior of their customers.

Not just a pretty face

Since its early days, Superhuman has been criticized as “just a collection of browser extensions” with “a pretty UI” (the ultimate faint praise for designers). After all, behind the scenes it still uses Gmail (and only Gmail–no Outlook or other services are yet supported) to do the heavy lifting of sending, receiving, and storing emails, as well as filtering spam. Unlike the newer Hey service, Superhuman doesn’t change the basic mechanics of how email works–anyone can still email you, and you still deal with messages one at a time.

Superhuman’s interface (originally concepted with Ueno) is certainly elegant, packing a lot of information and power while still feeling simple and lightweight. Their keyboard shortcuts, and especially the CMD-K master shortcut (introduced with a clever interactive tutorial) are efficient and let them simplify and eliminate the visual clutter of buttons. The context panel updates to show helpful information about message senders and your schedule. And their dark mode is one of the best I’ve seen, good enough that I use it all the time. There’s certainly room to criticize (lack of visual contrast is a common issue), but overall it lives up to the “premium” design bar that their marketing promises.

The app is also very responsive. Superhuman makes offline access first-class, feeling like a native desktop app despite being built on web technologies. They promise “the fastest email experience ever made” in their marketing, and back it up with detailed engineering optimizations. Gmail has always prioritized speed, but Superhuman–especially with their desktop app focus–makes it significantly faster.

In theory you can combine a few browser extensions and settings (Simplify, Flash, Clearbit, Gmail offline, Mixmax, etc) to simulate the Superhuman experience. I think the packaging Superhuman has done is a significant improvement, and lots of extensions are likely to torpedo your UI responsiveness, but the basic features are available cheaper (or free) elsewhere.

The team has indeed built a beautiful interface to email, with clever interactions and impressive responsiveness. But Superhuman’s slick UI hides the fact that what they really sell is behavior change.

Superhuman’s behavior change techniques

Some former Superhuman customers have said that the biggest value they got from the app was changing their workflow. Superhuman is designed around the belief that you should empty your inbox every day (“inbox zero”) and most of its features and tips are aimed at helping you do that. Many people (and apps) have tried to implement the inbox zero philosophy, but most find it too difficult to continue.

While that can be used as a criticism (“You don’t need the app, just change how you do things”), it’s actually much harder to change someone’s behavior than to simply help them with their current behaviors. Entire professions exist to help people change their behaviors, and even they struggle to make a lasting impact. Email is a daily activity for billions of people, and for “an app” to change your behavior around it is an impressive achievement.

Superhuman combines a number of behavior change techniques to help ensure that you change your behavior and stick to it.

Commitment – Superhuman requires a personal referral to even sign up (which you probably have to ask someone for, using your social capital) – Every new user is required to attend a (video) getting started call with a Superhuman employee (committing your time) – Part of that call is a step-by-step process to get to inbox zero before you hang up. – They also ask you to move the app icon into your dock (and hide your “old” email app icon once that’s done) – And of course, they ask you to pay, up-front, setting the expectation that “this is valuable”

All of these contribute to the commitment effect which keeps you invested in continuing the behaviors long enough to become your established workflow.

Signaling/pacts – The name “Superhuman” itself signals that this is a product for above-average, important people. Of course you fit into that category, right? – Their “Sent from Superhuman” email signature on by default. You don’t have to pay to remove it (you’re already paying!) which frames it as a “feature”, rather than a “tax”. And as someone who values their time, wouldn’t you want to make that clear to others?

These aspects build up the social identity of the user, one of our most powerful motivators, and tie it to attributes of the Superhuman product. You can’t stop now–you’re superhuman!

Reinforcement – Your personal onboarding contact follows up with personalized checkins after one day and one week, to see how you’re doing and help you stay on track to making Superhuman a habit (one quote: “Have you opened Gmail since our call? If so, how come? 😢”) – You get daily, personally-addressed emails from CEO Rahul Vohra for 30+ days – They show you a pretty picture when you get to inbox zero. Plenty of people tweet this out as a #humblebrag.

The more that Superhuman can reinforce your new behaviors, the stronger they become. Video games are the gold standard for this; think about all the “Level up!” and “Achievement unlocked” celebrations a typical game employs. Vohra regularly speaks about how they use game design techniques to build Superhuman.

The hidden feature

The first rule about behavior change…is you do not talk about behavior change.

One of the interesting aspects of Superhuman’s marketing is that they don’t mention behavior change at all. Their homepage is entirely focused on speed and product features; their tagline is “THE FASTEST EMAIL EXPERIENCE EVER MADE.” Despite the benefits of inbox zero and the value of the commitments in their process, neither of those things make the homepage.

In an interview, CEO Rahul Vohra noted that they draw their marketing copy from the testimonials of their happiest customers. So this focus on speed and product features is something that their customers share.

So why isn’t anyone talking about the new behaviors (besides the former customers mentioned above)? One theory is that nobody wants to change; they want to want to change. Telling people that they’re doing something wrong, and asking them to change, is rarely well-received.

On the other hand, telling people that they are good (and busy, and important), and that their current tools are holding them back, is flattering. Lots of people will identify with that kind of messaging, and reflect it back to others.

The combination of these techniques leads to a feeling that:

1) You are important and your time is valuable 2) The creators of Superhuman care about you and your success 3) You’re indebted to the person who referred you.

It’s a powerful combination, and one that I haven’t experienced from any other software application. The closest analogous experiences I can think of are a professional development course, a therapist, or a university education.

Why I paid

I’m not the target Superhuman customer. I don’t get all that much email, nor handle important, time-sensitive information that way. I don’t subscribe to their “inbox zero” philosophy. As a designer of productivity software, it’s interesting for me to see their design choices, but I don’t need to pay $30/month to do my email with Superhuman.

And yet I did pay them, for a long time, because I felt that by canceling I’d be disappointing Paula, Rahul, and my referrer David, who had all invested in my success. I’d have to move my old email apps back into position, and set up the shortcuts and extensions that I do use from Superhuman in another email client. I’d be admitting that my email messages aren’t all that important after all–and that maybe I’m not either =) And I’d miss those regular reinforcements that I’d done well at a difficult task.

So while I admire the beautiful design and speed of Superhuman’s apps, I was really paying for the commitment, signaling, and reinforcement techniques they used to change my behavior.

Changing apps is easy.

Changing yourself is hard.

Kudos to Superhuman for understanding the real challenge for their customers and designing to support them.

The Automation Charade

The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate. – The Automation Charade

The biggest constraint in most product development is not technical capability or design skill–it’s willingness to talk with customers.

Investing in Omaha

In an age when all the attention is on rich Silicon Valley people designing things for each other, it’s interesting to read why the world’s most successful investor lives in Omaha, Nebraska:

Buffett is known for investing in quality businesses that have fallen out of favor with the market, and he said being in Omaha helped him do that.

“In some places it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” he said.

Buffett said being far from Wall Street actually helped him.”It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments…If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.”

I’ve worked with several rich and famous technologists, and I always wonder if their prior success helps or hinders their future efforts. I think it’s a bit of each, but no matter how rich you are, there’s one thing you can’t buy–the groundedness and perspective of life outside the bubble.

Capitalism as cancer

It’s been extremely successful; then again, it has to be:

A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Ursula K. Le Guin, quoting social ecologist Murray Bookchin

On surfboards and yachts

And being close to the water:

Baldwin: How many sitcoms could you have launched with the imprimatur of your name on it? You could have your own channel. The Jerry channel.

Seinfeld: Yeah. But I didn’t take that bait…because most of it is not creative work. And it’s not reaching an audience. You want to be on the water? How do you want to be on the water? You want to be on a yacht? You want to be on a surfboard? I want to be on a surfboard.

Let me tell you why my TV show in the ’90s was so good…In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show, 50% of the time is spent on dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99% of our time writing, me and Larry.

Think small

A nice example of thinking small first, similar to Brandon Schauer’s Cake model.

Faster horses and tone-deaf designers

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse – Henry Ford (allegedly)

This quote has always bothered me. Not only is it dismissive of customer input, but I’ve seen it misused terribly by a wide range of people, who cite it as an excuse to ignore other people and design whatever they want. So it was with great delight that I found this marvelous debunking of the “quote” and the philosophy behind it.

Let me dispel with the suspense; it doesn’t appear that Henry Ford ever actually uttered this famous and polarizing phrase. We have no evidence that Ford ever said those words…

However, even if Ford didn’t verbalize his thoughts on customers’ ostensible inability to communicate their unmet needs for innovative products — history indicates that Henry Ford most certainly did think along those lines — his tone-deafness to customers’ needs (explicit or implicit), had a very costly and negative impact on the Ford Motor Company’s investors, employees, and customers.

Speculative spending

It’s actually very difficult to spend meaningful amounts of money, relative to Google’s scale, on things that are speculative.

One of my favorite Larry moments was when he used to regularly ask the whole company to work on artificial intelligence and no one would do it:

My own experience within Google is that it’s hard to get people to work on those kinds of things because of the personal risk they feel they’re taking…

I’ve told the whole company repeatedly I want people to work on artificial intelligence – so we end up with five people working on it. Guess what? That’s not a major expense. There’s a reason we talk about 70/20/10, where 70% of our resources are spent in our core business and 10% end up in unrelated projects, like energy or whatever. [The other 20% goes to projects adjacent to the core business.]

Actually, it’s a struggle to get it to even be 10%.

Getting on rocket ships

When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on. – Sheryl Sandberg