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


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By Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, Ben Gilbert, and David Rosenthal. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

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: https://www.acquired.fm/episodes/superhuman

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  • This episode is supported by Teamistry, a great new podcast from Atlassian that tells the stories of teams who work together in new and unexpected ways to achieve remarkable things. It's one of our best new podcast discoveries in 2020 and we think Acquired listeners are going to love it. Our thanks to Teamistry for their support, and you can listen here: https://link.chtbl.com/teamistry?sid=podcast.acquired
  • Thank you as well to Lemon.io. You can learn more about Lemon at: https://lemon.io/acquired/

Playbook Themes from this Episode: Also available on our website at https://www.acquired.fm/episodes/special-superhuman-part-ii-designing-software-to-feel-like-a-game-with-rahul-vohra )

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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