How can you find fun in the usually mundane? Do you design your business software like game designers design games? Rahul Vohra founded Superhuman as the antidote to boring email platforms. Being able to do things faster, without distraction, and with a goal of inbox zero makes you change your perspective on emails.
Rahul has spoken before at Business of Software in USA 2018 about the product-market fit engine and creating something people love to use. In this talk at USA 2019, Rahul talks us through the different aspects to think about when designing business software and how to make an everyday task exciting and surprising for the user.
Learn how great companies are run
At BoS we run events and publish content that is highly valued by anyone trying to build, run, and scale a great software company.
Sign up for a regular dose of actionable and useful content:
Mark Littlewood: So in an interesting change from the expected music. That’s MIA which was for April actually so don’t know what’s happened. You used to work at Jagex so I had a little Jagex ‘walking around the world’ and background music but there you go. MIA is just as good.
Rahul Vohra: Well thank you Mark and hello everybody. My name is Rahul. I’m the founder and CEO of a company called superhuman where we make the fastest email experience in the world. Our customers get through their email about twice as fast as before they respond to important email faster and many of them see inbox zero for the first time in years. Most companies worry about what users want or what they need. But no one needs a game to exist. There are no requirements. We don’t care about what you want or what you need. We obsess over how you feel.
Because when you make products like they are games people find them fun. They tell their friends. They fall in love with them. It’s an altogether different kind of product development. Last year I shared how to optimize your way towards product market fit; spend half your time doubling down on what people really love and half your time systematically overcoming objections. But how do we double down on love. Well today I will share how. I will show you how to create experiences that are delightful amazing. Magical and which are fundamentally like games. So I started my journey in game design making paper and pencil mazes that I would then force my dad to play through. I learned how to code primarily so I could create video games and I did that all the way through high school and then before I became a founder I worked for Jagex – like Mark said – on Runescape which at the time was the world’s largest free online roleplaying game. And I learned quickly how not to do it. It is not gamification. Game design is not the same thing as gamification and ten years ago gamification was a big deal. Kleiner Perkins observed that they saw it mentioned and over half of all of their consumer pitches. But it didn’t work. And to understand why we have to understand human motivation.
In the 1970s Stanford researchers recruited 50 children between the ages of 3 and 4 and these were kids who were generally interested in drawing. They were divided into multiple groups. One group was told they would get a reward – a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon. Another group wasn’t even told about a reward. So they didn’t expect one let alone knew one existed. The kids were invited separately into a room asked to draw for six minutes and then over the next few days they were observed. To see how much of that time they would voluntarily spend drawing. The kids who had no reward 16.7% of their time over the next few days drawing. But the kids who expected a reward only spent 8.6% of their time. Over the next few days drawing. In other words the presence and the knowledge of a reward more than halved their spontaneous interest in drawing. So what’s going on here. Now to answer that question. We’re going to turn to Self-Determination Theory. This is a standard theory of motivation. Researchers distinguish between intrinsic motivation where we do things for their own sake and extrinsic motivation. Now extrinsic motivation can be integrated: I do this because this is who I am, I unconsciously value or believe in this goal. Or it can be identified: I do this because it is important to me, I consciously value this goal or it can be intojected: I do this because I said I would do it and it’s part of my ego my self esteem. Or it can be external: I do this because you reward me.
Reward reduces intrinsic motivation we stop doing things for their own sake and that is why gamification does not work. And when it does work it is because the underlying experience is fundamentally already like a game. Which brings us to this. What then is a game? Now this is a subject of intense debate and we’re going to adopt a set of definitions by Jesse Schell who wrote this book The Art of Game Design. This is the best book on the topic. We have to start somewhere so how about this. A game is something you play. But we also play with toys. Does that mean toys or games. No they seem kind of different in fact we use different language to describe them. We play a game but a toy is something we play with. Now we play with our friends does not make them toys? I sure hope not! No toys are objects that we play with. But some objects seem to be better toys than other I could play with this clicker here all day but I wouldn’t be having very much fun. No I think we would say a good toy is an object that’s fun to play with. Well now we’re getting somewhere. But we have this new word to define: fun.
What is fun?
Is fun simply the same as pleasure. Is it possible to have fun without experiencing pleasure. I don’t think so. But is it possible to experience pleasure without having fun? I think the answer is definitely yes imagine a relaxing head massage and experience most of us would find pleasant. But I think few of us would describe as fun. A fun seems to have a certain something special – a sizzle – and as it turns out fun requires surprises. In fact our brain is hard wired to enjoy surprise. Fun is pleasant surprise. So now we have a good stack. A game is something we play. Games are often made out of toys. Toys are objects that are fun to play with and fun is pleasant surprise. But we don’t want to just make games. We want to design good games. So how do you make a good game. Now in his book Jesse outlines over 100 different factors to consider. These are the top twenty two that are the most relevant to making business software. For each of these I’m going to go through them share how we use it and I’ll suggest ways for you to use it on your own products.
The best games make us feel strong emotion. And that’s important because strong emotion is the foundation of our memory. If we’re going to be able to do this then we need the vocabulary to be able to talk about it. This is one of the most well-known categorizations of emotion. This is Plutchik’s model. He identified eight core emotions opposites emotions are arranged from each other on this wheel (for example joy is opposite grief) and most interestingly you can combine nearby emotions to make new ones. So for example the combination of joy and trust is love; and the combination of joy and anticipation is optimism. But I’m afraid as game designers we need something far more nuanced than this. The level of emotion that we need to design to is way more detailed than you will find in academia. So this is the most useful emotion wheel I have found. This was made by the Junto Institute of entrepreneurial leadership. At superhuman we care deeply about joy. We build experiences that are enthusiastic and exciting whenever any use it comes to us. They’re super excited to use our product. We design for optimism and hopefulness our users are optimistic that superhuman will make a meaningful impact on their lives. We designed for pride and triumph because when you hit inbox zero especially if it’s the first time in years it is something to be proud of. And when you hit inbox zero we show you stunning and gorgeous imagery and we use this imagery to widen our emotional repertoire beyond just joy into love and surprise. We show images that are peaceful and tranquil. Images that convey a sense of longing and sentimentality. Images that perhaps even inspire awe and amazement. Now you can also use this wheel to identify emotions you don’t want or you wish to remove. We often see users who have a very negative pre-existing relationship with that or an email they might for example feel helpless or annoyed or anguished or guilty, even powerless. So as you think about your own products consider what emotions you would like to create. What are the positive ones and what are the negative ones. And you can use this wheel as inspiration.
The best games have a unifying theme. A single idea often very visceral and for superhuman that theme is speed. Every part of the product comes together to reinforce the theme. And there are four parts to consider. Story, aesthetics, mechanics, and technology. Our story reinforces theme right from when you sign up through when you log in through when you’re in the tutorial. Our aesthetics service theme from this image of a speeding train to this figure in motion to these acute diagonal lines. Our mechanics reinforce the theme of speed. There is such a thing on a computer as a key repeat rate when you hold down a key. This is the amount of time it takes for the key to repeat on the screen. By default on MacOS that is 100 milliseconds and superhuman. We deliberately set it to 65 milliseconds so when you hold down on the keyboard and you move through your inbox you do it to 35% faster than any other email app. And our technology also services the theme. We have a native Mac app and a web experience. And we spent years figuring out how to download index and store all of your e-mail in the browser itself. Such that when you search for an email there’s a very good chance it’s already on your disk and if it is that searches instantaneous. So as you think about your own products. What is the theme? What is the single theme that you’re trying to express. And do these components come together to support that.
We’ve already said that fun is pleasant surprise and superhuman has lots of pleasant surprises littered all the way through. The surprises could be aesthetic like the star animation. This is a surprisingly detailed animation and an otherwise minimal interface. The surprise could be technological. We spent years figuring out how to make superhuman just work offline. So when you’re without internet we don’t really tell people about this. But when you’re without internet surprise the whole thing is working! What surprises do you have in store for your users. Is it story? Is it mechanics? Is it aesthetic? Is like this technological?
Now the best games make us curious. There are many ways to promote curiosity the very medium of email is curious. What is the next e-mail? Did Bill reply to my email? What did Mark say? But you can also design your interface to promote that curiosity and superhuman. We very deliberately only show you one conversation at a time and when you’re looking at this conversation you can’t see the inbox. You can’t see what’s coming next because when you know that something’s coming next but you can’t see it you become curious. But what if there is nothing next. What if the next thing is in fact inbox zero? Well in that case we show you stunning and gorgeous imagery photography that changes every single day. Scenes that are serene and peaceful and tranquil adding another layer of curiosity. What does winning look like for today? So as you consider your own products ask yourself this is my medium one that inherently generates curiosity. Can I amplify that through my user interface decisions. And can I add interesting layers on top of that to generate even more curiosity.
Resonance is one of my favorite ways to think about game design. There are two kinds of resonance fantasy and truth. Resonant fantasy is when an experience resonates with our dreams or desires; for example in superhuman it could be the fantasy of having superpowers. It sounds at once liberating and exhilarating. Who wouldn’t want this? But there is something even more powerful than fantasy. And that is truth Jesse in his book gives the example of the movie The Titanic. Why is this movie so compelling? It’s not the effects or the execution or even the performances – Great though all of these things are – No it’s because the movie has a resonant truth that is constantly reinforced all the way through. And that truth is this love is more important than life and stronger than death. Now most of us don’t go around saying this all the time but the reason why the movie is so compelling is because most of us do actually really believe this. But it’s the kind of belief that we keep buried deep inside of us. So, what would the resonant truth be for superhuman? Well for a product like ours it would probably involve attainments or achievements. What is a related idea that is deeply held but rarely expressed as a stab in the dark how about we start with this: I am what I do. It’s sort of going in the right direction but we’re clearly much more than the product of our work. So it’s a little two dimensional. How about this: I deserve to succeed. It’s better in some ways it mentions success and attainment but I don’t think this would really resonate with any of us here. I think we all believe that success comes to those who work for it. Maybe there’s something in that direction. How about this: If I work hard enough I can achieve anything and there we have it. This is the resonant truth. This by the way will never come out of a user study but this is a powerful truth that many of us deeply believe.
For this next section. I’ll invite you to think of the single experience that you would most love to share. With the rest of the world and experience that inspired you. And whilst you’re thinking about that I’ll share mine. I was fortunate to sell my last company and after I did I acquired a very special car: a Lamborghini guy auto super La Jara 570 S. This thing had 570 horsepower zero to 60 in three seconds often faster. A v10 naturally aspirated engine gigantic air takes at the front a huge rate swing at the back. Everything that could be made out of carbon was in fact made out of carbon. I used to race this thing and we’re not talking sensible races on a track. No, we’re talking madness in the mountains and the canyons and there is a speed where something magical happens. A speed where you stop thinking in words because words are too slow. A speed where by the time you’ve had this thought you’re round the corner and through the next valley a speed where you become the car and the car becomes you human and machine in synchrony. A speed where every sense is at capacity where you see the landscape ripped by you hear the scream of the engine you can smell burning rubber and you feel the roads every imperfection. This is the most extreme flow I have ever experienced. And it is a direct inspiration for superhuman. I wish I could package it all up and share it with the entire world. And this is why we set out to build the fastest email experience in the world. This is why our story aesthetics mechanics and technology are in service of performance. And this is why we care so much about engineering for flow. Much more about flow later. So hopefully you’ve thought of your thing that special lifetime experience that so few have had that you can package up and share with the world. We don’t normally build business software this way. But what if we did what would you share?
Let’s talk about toys
So we know games are fun to play we know toys are fun to play with. For example Army figures are a toy but Risk is a game. If toys are fun to play with it suggests an interesting strategy for making good games. In fact good games are often made out of toys because then there’s fun on multiple levels. The fun on the level of the toy and the fun on the level of a game. So how do we make good toys. Well let’s take a look and example from superhuman. One of the favorite toys in our product is the time auto complete – It sounds fancy but it’s just the box where you type to specify a date or a time we use this in the reminder feature pretty simple you answer some text. It could be gibberish.
For example 2D is two days, 3H is three hours, 1MO is one month and it does its best to try and understand what date and time you were talking about. Now the reason this is fun is because the time auto complete a indulges the user in playful exploration. What can I type? How does it work? Can I break this thing? And it’s not long and people try it’s not long in our onboardings before people are trying this. Hmm I wonder what happens if you put 10 four times in a row. Okay. October the 10th 10:10 to make sense. What happens if I put the PM in the middle. Well it still seems to work. What about for twos in a row. Well this turns out to be February the 2nd 2020 at 2 p.m.. What if I just string them altogether. Well maybe that’s tonight at 22:22. And then they start trying more complex things and they start trying to enter weird words that they think we haven’t thought of but we’ve always thought of it. And then they find pleasant surprises like they don’t have to do time zone math anymore. I wonder what 5 p.m. in London is. Okay. It’s 12 p.m. Pacific. Or how about 8:00 a.m. in Tokyo. Well that’s 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And then they find fun things like this oh I want to snooze this email until never. Well guess what. We support that too. So as you think of your own products all the parts that indulge the user in playful exploration parts that are fun even without to go parts that generate a stream of surprises. If so congratulations because you have made a toy and you can use that toy as the building block for a game.
Flow is so important that I will both define it and describe how to create it. So what is it? Well it is an intense and focused concentration on the present and is the merging of action and awareness. Flow is so absorbing that we don’t think about the past or worry about the future. It is the loss of reflective self-conscious. Flow is so demanding that we stop caring what other people think about us. We have a sense of personal control. Flow is so easy that we know what to do next and we know how to do it. Flow distorts our temporal experience. It is so powerful that it alters our subjective experience of time. Time can flash by in an instant or stretch out to infinity. And most importantly flow makes our activity intrinsically motivating. We start to do things for their own sake. Sounds pretty incredible. So how do we make it? Well number one we have to know what to do next because if we don’t know what to do then we’re going to have to stop and figure it out. Number two we have to know how to do it because if we don’t we’re going to stop and figure out how. Number three we have to be completely free from distractions. Flow requires focus and distractions disrupt attention. Number four we need clear and immediate feedback. If the feedback isn’t clear, if we don’t know how we’re doing will quickly lose interest. And if we don’t know quickly well then we risk distraction. And most importantly, and this is the hardest to get right, flow requires a balance between perceived challenged and perceived skill and both have to be high. We can see this on the following diagram.
This is called the experience fluctuation model. You can see that flow occurs when we perceive the challenge to be hard. And we also perceive our own level of skill to be high. So let’s take those one by one and I’ll show you how we do it. Knowing what to do next. This is of course Gmail what happens when I archive this email. Oh no I’m back on the inbox and some of these items are read and some of them are unread and some of them are starred and some of them are new and shiny. I have to take a decision what I do next. Every single time this massively disrupts flow and superhuman you archive this email and you’re straight onto the next one. You don’t have to decide anything this massively promotes flow. Number two knowing how to do things. This is one of the primary reasons why we onboard our users for those who don’t know for each new user. They do a live concierge onboarding with one of our wonderful onboarding specialists. This is a 30 minutes one to one video call. And in these onboardings we teach you faster workflows to get to inbox zero. And powerful shortcuts so you never have to touch the mouse. We saw early on that people would forget the shortcuts. So we built superhuman command you’re trying to do something but don’t know the shortcut. No problem just hit command K and type it in. It will do it for you and show you the shortcut for next time.
Freedom from distractions. We already observed that when you’re looking at a thread you can’t see anything else. And we observed that in the context of curiosity but because you can’t see the inbox you also can’t see new emails as they arrive. So we free you from the tyranny of a new email.
Clear and immediate feedback. When you archive an email we endeavor to show you the next email as immediately as possible and this is something we’ve invested years of effort into. We set out to show you the next email in 100 milliseconds or less and we’re just finishing work on a new renderer that can achieve this in 32 milliseconds or less.
And the hardest one of course is balancing perceived challenge with perceiving skill and making both of them hard. Let’s go back to the experience fluctuation model. Most people in Gmail are on the left hand side of the slice. Let’s say the skill level might be low to medium but their e-mail doesn’t matter that much well then they’re going to experience apathy or boredom or maybe their skill level is low to medium but their e-mail is kind of important. Well then they’ll experience worry or their skill level is low to medium and their email really matters and they’re failing at it. Well then they will feel anxiety. That is how it most users come to us. Now superhuman massively increases the skill level for all of our users and we do this with our onboardings, with our new workflows, and with our shortcuts. But what happens if you are already highly skilled or your e-mail actually wasn’t as challenging as the very top of this diagram. Well then – and this is gonna be the craziest thing I say all day – we make the product experience harder. We add challenge. We give you a specific challenge which is not only are you going to attempt to reach inbox zero you’re going to do it without ever touching the mouse. So as you think about your own product experiences are you creating flow to users know what to do and how to do it? Are they free from distraction is that clear and immediate feedback? And most importantly is there a balance between skill and challenge and counterintuitively you may actually have to make your product harder in order to achieve this. No one else standing on the stage or probably ever say that I’m telling you to make your products harder to use.
Okay needs. The best games serve our basic human needs. There are many ways to categorize human needs. The most common and well known is Maslow’s hierarchy and the premise is simple we don’t pursue higher levels until we’ve achieved the lower levels for example safety would not be a priority if we required food shelter and warmth and we would not pursue belonging if we did not feel physically safe. Now most business software is squarely aimed at achievement, we have jobs to do and the software helps us do our jobs. But you can quickly expand to the entire self-esteem level. We do this in superhuman serving mastery by creating a product that is both challenging yet powerful and we serve respect and recognition by creating a brand that is premium and aspirational. And once you’re serving this level you can easily expand to the levels above and below. For example you can serve self actualization by making it easier for your users to express themselves through creating content and you can serve belonging by bringing your users closer to their co-workers colleagues and friends.
Believe it or not. We all crave to be judged. We want to be scored assessed. We want to know how well we’re doing. But we don’t just want any kind of judgment we want judgment that is fair useful and motivating. I think this is something we do very poorly in business software because we don’t normally think about it like game design. Take the example of inbox counts in Gmail. Many of us have tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of messages. And Gmail judges us. Does this judgment seem fair? Not really at this point is it. Actually all my fault is Gmail partly to blame. The judgment also doesn’t seem useful or motivating with 229,000 e-mails. What am I meant to do? At superhuman we simply don’t show this count if it’s over 1000. Below 1000 the judgment seems fairer it’s more likely to be a product of your own actions and also more useful in motivating using the tool you can quickly work your way to inbox zero. So as you think about your own products what judgments are you making? Maybe you weren’t even consciously doing it. And are they fair useful and motivating.
The best games have goals and the best games have goals that are concrete achievable reinforced and rewarding. Let’s go through these in turn. So at superhuman has a very specific goal: Get to inbox zero. We use our onboarding to make it achievable. Beyond the workflows beyond the shortcuts. Let’s say you were at 229,000 e-mails we’ll wipe the slate clean. So you’re just a stone’s throw away from achieving it. Your product itself should reinforce the goals. That’s why superhuman does not have unread counts it only has total counts. You can’t gain this count by opening an email and saying oh I dealt with it. Now you actually have to deal with it and then archive it or mark it as done. Now your players might help you reinforce the goal because superhuman users often publicly share and celebrate their inbox zero moments and inspires others to do the same. And lastly the goal needs to be rewarding. Inbox zero is rewarding on at least two levels we’ve already talked about one – which is the beautiful imagery that we show the reward is the emotion that you feel. It’s also inherently rewarding at the self-esteem level of Maslow’s hierarchy because getting there requires skill and practice. We serve the basic human needs of achievement and mastery. And because getting there is something that you can share publicly, we serve the basic human needs of recognition and respect.
So if you want to make flow we have to balance high challenge with high skill. How do we actually do that balance? We need to know what all the skills we require are. And there are three types of skill: physical, mental, and social. Let’s look at the skills required by superhuman. Number one is triage. This is a mental skill. What do I do with this email? Do I star it, snooze it, archive it, delegate it? There are many video games built entirely on the concept triage. Shortcuts are both mental and physical. Do I know what shortcut to hit? Can I accurately press the key? Can I do it quickly and can I do this in rapid succession? Typing of course is a physical skill the faster I type the faster I do my email focus is mental. The more on task I remain the faster I do my email. Brevity is actually mental and social. The shorter my email is the faster I do my email to the point where I’m annoying you so it requires a little bit of both. Empathy is social. The better we connect the more effectively I’ll be able to communicate and persuasion is also social the more persuasive I am the more effective I can be at achieving my overall goals and I want to stop that because we could do this exercise for a long time.
It turns out that our business software requires a tremendous number of skills from us. I highly recommend that you do this exercise, list out your own skills and then for each. Ask yourself does the perceived challenge match the perceived skill? For example empathy is something that people really struggle with inside of email which is why we have this social sidebar inside of superhuman. When people email you, you can see what they look like where they’re based what they do their recent tweets links to their social profiles. We reduce the skill level required for empathy. We reduce frustration and anxiety and therefore make it more likely that users will stay in flow.
Chance means fun. Why? Because chance is uncertainty. Uncertainty creates surprises and surprises are fun. Let’s go back to this idea of auto advance. In superhuman, you archive an email and you immediately see the next one. You don’t have to decide what to do and that was critical for flow. Now compare that to an email experience like Gmail where you archive an email and you’re back on the inbox. Now you’re deciding what email to do next. That actually removes all chance and randomness from the system. By definition you are deciding every single next action. In superhuman you don’t make that decision. It just comes up and so we generate a steady stream of little surprises and as we know surprises are the secret source of fun. Business software has basically no chance in it whatsoever. It’s very very rare to find but I think if we want to make products like they are games we should figure out how to add the spark of randomness to our experiences.
We’ve already talked about multiple kinds of reward emotional reward surprise accomplishments. I’m gonna go through a whitelist in his book Jesse outlines ten possible types of reward. I think seven are immediately preferable to business software. The first is praise. Simply tell your user they did an amazing job. Maybe play a fun sound effect very easy to do. Yet so few of us do this. Number two is points especially effective if you have a leaderboard. Three is spectacle. We’ve talked about the inbox zero images on special occasions we go all out for example on April Fools this year the inbox zero image was that of a beautiful park bench in the fall that were yellow and orange leaves everywhere. And after a few seconds a squirrel runs on the screen jumps on the bench and pulls you into the scene. People loved it. It was a spectacle. The fourth is expression. And I think this is something we can do much better in business software. As we all know for example and slack you can create your own emoji. This is something that everybody can do. What if this was a reward for say having sent 1000 messages. Will you be more proud of doing it? You’ll be more likely to actually do it. And when you make them you’ll be more likely to use them and to share them. Power is such a common human desire in real life that it makes for an incredibly effective reward. In video games again I think this is something that we can easily do with our very future heavy business software. But we need the courage to hold back functionality until the user has shown that they can handle it. Status relatively easy to do in team based products. You could give your users achievements that they can show to each other. And finally completion. Now this one may seem counterintuitive why would you start something just to finish it. And the answer is because the sense of completion is so rare in real life that we feel unusually accomplished when it happens in a videogame.
Think of your favorite entertainment experience and maybe music and maybe a movie. It may be a story. What makes it stand out? What are its weird defining quirks? What makes its personality lovable? The best games have plenty of character and in superhuman we have many weird quirks that make it stand out. For example the at symbol (@) of course we make an e-mail experience the at symbol is of symbolic importance. This is my email address in five very common typefaces. Notice how awkward the at symbol is. This is my email address in the typeface of superhuman you’ve chosen the typeface so that the at symbol is natural and as connected as any other character it sits on the baseline even has a descender; it comes below the baseline.
So what about your products. It’s a weird and quirky and has lovable personality? Ideally you want hundreds of these little things
All games require physical inputs and physical input comes from a physical interface. Sometimes this interface is the reason why. The thing is dramatically successful. For example the original Wii sold over 100 million units and every single controller since has incorporated motion. Unfortunately, most business software is not as robust as it needs to be in order to support Video game style input. Well imagine you are playing a game like Street Fighter and you’re entering a complex series of buttons and the software arbitrarily didn’t respond to the middle sequence and then your character flops around and then dies. Well that actually is the status quo for most business software. The shortcut to send an email or to composing your email rather in Gmail is see the character C. So let’s say I wanted to email my co-founder Conrad. I would press C and then I would type of the word Conrad. If I do that reasonably quickly and Gmail see what happens I end up with two drafts and an email to Rad. Now why is this happening. It’s because Gmail isn’t pipeline ing that keystrokes. They haven’t built their physical interface to the high level. That a game would.
Now of course in superhuman we are designing it like a videogame so we’ve done this but we’ve had to build our own keyboard event handler to make this possible. So if you want to make your products like it’s a game keyboard interaction seems like a very obvious way to go but if you go down this road know that it isn’t as easy as it appears. You end up having to build technology that might not be visible from the outset.
Now the flip side is the physical interface is the virtual interface or as we would more likely say the user interface. And if you look at the user interface of most video games it’s barely there. It’s minimal. Why? Because that lets us connect with emotionally the content on the screen. And again most business software is not like this. This screen has over thirty one buttons and at least four different kinds of navigation. That same email in superhuman has a handful of buttons and most importantly the email content is in prime location.
If you want to make your products like it’s a game. Why don’t you try this: Go through every single screen and ask yourself What can I remove/What can I actually get rid of? And then ask yourself what happens if you keep on answering that question.
So I have many friends who play Fortnite’s and they often recounts their experience as follows. Do it was amazing. I was at the top of the hill and I jumped in the car and then I screamed all the way down. Then halfway down I jumped out and mid air I turned and I sniped this guy from across the map now they didn’t actually do any of those things of course. They moved a mouse and they pressed them buttons and then their character appeared to do those things. But it’s fascinating listening to how they talk about it. They project their identity and consciousness into the game. How many of us can say our users do that. This is extremely rare in business software. So what is the trick. How do we do this. The trick is that we create an avatar a surface or a canvas where users can project their identity and consciousness. It’s not particularly easy to do in business software and we don’t claim to have figured this out but we think we’re getting close. So we’ve invented this concept of a focus. The focus represents you. It shows you where you are and where you can go next. Visually it’s as minimal as a purple bar. This of course we’re also building a minimal interface here. And we found that in order for users to project identity onto this and for this to act as an avatar it needs to behave in five key ways. Most business software breaks these rules. There should only be precisely one focus; is that always true in your app. It should always be focus. This will always be obvious where your focus is and most apps is actually invisible. Most of the time. And then three and four you should be able to move your focus anywhere and with the arrow keys or in some other natural fashion and most importantly you should never be able to lose your focus. Imagine if you were playing a game and your character just disappears.
We don’t want that to happen.
So we mentioned that expression sits right at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. And if you’re building software that involves communication or collaboration well then guess what, you can actually achieve high expression fairly easily. Let’s see how tricky in fact it would be for me to express myself with some emoji in Gmail to say hi. Looking for a waving emoji and I’m just going to say well the new update is fire. But I want to I want a picture of a fire because that’s more expressive. And then I want to do a little okay hand to type that and again do that. I just wanted to let you know – I know this is painful but that’s the point – And then we do a little pray. This is actually how I write my e-mails by the way I’m not even kidding. So that took about thirty two seconds, I believe. In superhuman we’ve made expressing yourself through emoji blazingly fast and this is just one form of expression as you think about how your users communicate how can you make it blazingly fast. Or better. Are there new forms of emotional expression that you can let them do?
We’ve talked about various forms of pleasure already. I’m going to give you a much longer list as inspiration for what you can use in your own product. So Mark LeBlanc who’s a game designer listed eight forms of pleasure the sensation the pleasure of the senses of seeing of hearing of touching the deliciously tactile sensation of let’s say hitting a cherry keyboard. There’s fantasy the pleasure of being somebody else in some other world. Narrative: the pleasure of following a dramatic sequence of events over time. Challenge: the pleasure of increasingly difficult scenarios. Fellowship the pleasure of social interaction. Discovery: the pleasure of charting uncharted territory. Expression: the pleasure of creation and submission which is the pleasure of passing time. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are hundreds if not thousands of pleasure as probably many that we haven’t even discovered. Here is some more that Jesse lists in his book anticipation and the pleasure of expecting pleasure. Completion: the pleasure of finishing things. Schadenfreude is a German word that means the pleasure in another’s misfortune – may sound off putting but most competitive games involve a good dosage of schadenfreude. The pleasure of gifting. We love to make each other happy. Humor pleases us. Possibility: the pleasure of being at a buffet cart and choosing from the myriad options. Naches. This is a Yiddish word the pleasure of our close family achieving. Thrill: one of my favorite pleasures the pleasure of terror and safety all mixed up in one weird bundle. Fiero: this is an Italian word. The pleasure of achieving despite all costs. Wonder: this is the pleasure of awesomeness -in the original non-American traditional meaning of that word the pleasure of awe.
Hopefully some of these will have inspired you to say ‘oh yeah we have a little bit of fiero, how can we double down on that?’ or maybe ‘we can have more possibility. How do we double down on that?’
So, games cannot be equally as arresting all the time because if they were we would quickly lose interest. Most games have an interest curve that looks a little bit like this.
They start with a hook. They then have rising interest with variability and of course a grand finale. For us the hook is the onboarding where we teach you faster workflows and we teach you powerful shortcuts the rising interest is your increasing expertise with the products and the moments of delight you experience along the way. Of course it doesn’t monotonically increase because some emails are worse than others. It goes up and then down and then back up again. And then the grand finale is when you hit inbox zero. And this is such an emotionally resonant moment that our users love to share it.
So as you think about your own product what is your interest curve? What is the hook? What is the rising interest and does it have inherent variability and is there a grand finale that users can walk towards? I’m going to wrap with a very specific kind of interest curve. This is the hero’s journey. The thesis is that every great mythological story follows essentially the same narrative structure and this framework became famous when George Lucas credited it for having influenced the original Star Wars trilogy.
The Hero’s Journey
We’re going to go round the hero’s journey and use superhuman as an example in this framework. There are two worlds the ordinary world and the special world where the hero journeys to become super powered. Now the ordinary world is where they start out, in our case the hero is going to be a quintessential founder. They are running a startup and the special world are the email pits of despair. Their inbox which is massively massively overflowing. We start in the ordinary world. The hero is living their everyday life. Our founder is running their startup. They’re behind in their email they’re stressed and they’re not being a particularly great colleague, partner, or parent. But they hear a call to adventure. They hear of a magical thing far away. Our founder hears of superhuman. Perhaps they could do their e-mail twice as fast and sustainably maintain inbox zero and that would make their lives and the lives of everybody around them meaningfully better. But they refused the call the hero experiences hesitation. Our founder probably says “oh I’m too busy” or “it’s too expensive” or “I don’t have the time”.
And then they meet the hero with a wise often wizardly figure who provides resources or training or aid. Imagine Yoda in our case the founder meets with one of our wonderful onboarding specialists who teaches them faster workflows and shortcuts that they don’t ever have to touch their mouse ever again. Then there’s the crossing of the threshold the hero whole-heartedly commits to entering the special world and embarking upon adventure. Our founder whole-heartedly commits to crushing their email and living their best life. There are tests, allies, and enemies. The hero will have to overcome certain trials, they’ll make friends, they’ll acquire foes. Our founder will find other people who are also on the same email quest and some people may ridicule them. But they don’t care. The approach our hero is getting closer and closer to the penultimate battle and our founder as working closer and closer to the scary bottom of their inbox where scary things reside
The ordeal. This is the greatest challenge that the hero has ever had to face. For our founder these are the myriad fears and concerns that fester at the bottom of the inbox. That email that has been sitting there for the last four years now they finally finally will reply to it. And the reward the hero survives, overcomes, and they get some kind of reward. This is often a power or a super weapon and in our case our founder prevails. They achieve inbox zero and the reward is they can stay there sustainably. And they start the journey home the hero starts going back to whence they came. Our founder starts taking into account the reality of their day to day life and in the resurrection they see that they’re kind of screwed. The evil that the hero went out to conquer has followed them home and home is now at risk. In the founders case they’re running out of money. The business is about to close and they have to raise more financing so they go out for this final epic battle and the hero returns with an elixir – a potion or a McGuffin that makes everybody’s life better. Our founder returns with millions of dollars and now have runway to run that company. They’re no longer as stressed they’re a better colleague partner and parents and they materially improve the lives of all their employees and also all of their users.
Once you know this framework you’ll start seeing it everywhere. It’s a surprisingly compelling framework and to use it it’s actually very simple just sit down with your team and like we did here, map your user journey against the hero’s journey. And so there we have it. 22 factors that when taken in combination make a good game. If you think through all of these you’ll make experiences that are delightful. Which are magical which amaze and which are fundamentally like games. And if you’d like to get in touch and talk about it you can find me firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @rahulvohra.
Learn how great companies are run
At BoS we run events and publish content that is highly valued by anyone trying to build, run, and scale a great software company.
Sign up for a regular dose of actionable and useful content: