Decisions

The road to wisdom

The road to wisdom?
— Well, it’s plain
and simple to express:
Err
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

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.

Why we don’t believe

Because we don’t want to change our behavior:

In general, people use experts all the time, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing experts on most issues…The big exception [is when] we reject scientific findings because we don’t like their implications.

How to Criticize

From Daniel Dennett:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Previously: How to apologize

Saving democracy by talking about it

In a time when many people are getting all of their news from one polarized, personalized information feed or another, it’s interesting to see how low-tech 1930s solutions helped save democracy then.

The core elements were ways to get people talking about the real issues instead of the tribes they associated with.

The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him.

Like this program which opened up schools at night for the community to discuss topics:

The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

And this one, which enlisted diverse people to all explain what democracy was:

Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer.

Prosocial and cultural change

Prosocial is “a change method based on evolutionary science to enhance cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that’s effective at a global scale.”

It combines Elinor Ostrom’s insights about the behaviors of effective groups with evolutionary science and theories of change–moving toward or away from goals, with visible and internal reactions–that can make existing groups more effective.

Prosocial was used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the facilitators worked with local people to create a new way of honoring the dead that didn’t cause more infections; and to design a new community park in Detroit.

The optimization for sound bites is gonna be the optimization for fundamentalism. – Daniel Schmachtenberger

Gratitude increases patience and self-control – as the author asserts, a good way to keep those New Year’s resolutions!

Veto power and ranked choice voting

George Tsebelis on the connection between electoral structure and government structure:

The basic idea is that the more veto players you have, the more difficult it is to change the status quo. And the more ideological distance the veto players have from each other, the more difficult it is to change the status quo…

In the United States, if this kind of sharp division and polarization that we are seeing now is one we’d want to try to resolve institutionally, then the major solution would be a change in the electoral system, and a transformation to Single Transferable Vote, which means that every voter would rank the different candidates…

What STV does is, even if you are an extremist of one side or the other, your second vote will go to the more moderate candidate on one side. You’ll have a house or senate where moderates prevail.

The Fair Representation Act and ranked choice voting

There may be no perfect voting system, but the Fair Representation Act is trying to improve the biggest problems:

  • Voters are currently incentivized to vote for “the best person they think can actually win”, rather than their actual favorite candidate
  • Only a single person represents a group of often diverse interests
  • Gerrymandering has created bizarre voting districts that bear little or no resemblance to actual communities

By requiring broader districts, and electing multiple people from that district (rather than one each from smaller ones), the authors hope to represent a wider range of views in Congress. By offering ranked choice (or “instant runoff”) voting, they hope to eliminate the strategic and suboptimal voting patterns that favor only the major parties.