Superhuman’s Superpowers: A Product Review

Adam Masters
Oct 6, 2019 · 13 min read

Superhuman hit the jackpot with their email experience. Here’s a rundown of why I love it.

I like email. As a young kid, creating and using an email account was a special thing that made me feel adult and important. More recently, it’s one of my favorite digital forms of communication — it’s my to-do list as well as a history of conversations with those in my personal network, and it allows me to teeter on the line of formal and informal.

Oddly, though, as I have used email more substantially, it has become overbearing and slow to work through and manage. I find myself less and less responsive to this medium of communication and have inboxes with hundreds (if not thousands) of unread messages. This wasn’t just an internal switch — as an intern at Facebook, I was essentially taught never to use email to communicate with others unless there was no other option.

However, I am ready to hop back on the email train when I learned about Superhuman. I don’t have access to Superhuman myself (more on this below), but I have talked extensively with friends who do about their experiences before and after using Superhuman. I’ve even gotten them to let me play around with the product myself, which I greedily do at any opportunity to learn more about it. It wasn’t until after these experiences did I realized just how broken email clients are. Needless to say, I’m obsessed with Superhuman.

What is Superhuman and what are its goals?

Superhuman’s logo. Look close to the “S”!

Superhuman is a new email client that is aiming to be the fastest and best email experience in the world for high-powered business and personal email users. Superhuman’s creators focused on the little things — email templates, keyboard shortcuts, and instant intros — to radically improve email productivity and efficiency. It’s a premium product for power email users.

The catch? It’s 30$/month with no free-trial.

Currently, Superhuman is only available by being referred by an existing user or by signing up for their waitlist, which has about 100,000 people on it! This closed-beta was intentional to focus on collecting feedback and perfecting the app before releasing it publicly. New user acquisition isn’t a big hurdle for Superhuman, with plenty of people who have and are signed up to be on the waitlist.

The service attracts many people who are in search of a more efficient and productive email experience. But, the only reason for these users to stick around is if Superhuman actually helps them save time and energy dealing with email. Therefore, the most important goal for Superhuman to achieve is active engagement: keeping users engaged with key features to maximize the time they save. Superhuman doesn’t change email, but fundamentally changes how you can interact with it.

Why do I find it such a great product?

Superhuman has already received a lot of great press, helping to validate that it is a great product for its users. Earlier this year, Superhuman announced a $33 million Series B led by Andreessen Horowitz, raised at a $260 million valuation. Beyond financial capital, Superhuman has received so much positive feedback that they create a “Wall of Love’ that is filled with thousands of Tweets praising the service.

Even more, it has been praised by experts in the industry for redefining the benchmark of product/market fit with 58% of users indicating they would feel “very disappointed” if they could no longer use the product. The typical benchmark is 40%.

At first glance, Superhuman looks just like a beautiful skin on top of your old inbox. And beautiful it is. But beyond looks, it’s email built right. What do I find so magical in the app? Find out below.

Attention to Detail

Simply put, Superhuman is elegant. The clean, minimal interface makes email feel approachable, something that few would describe the communication form as. Previously on Gmail, the most one could do to improve Gmail’s looks was maybe put a beach or mountains behind their inbox. Superhuman stripped away all of the frills of email to design a clean, invisible, and beautiful inbox.

This can be traced down to the details — each time a user achieves “inbox zero” superhuman displays an inbox zero screen with a beautiful and serene image. This builds a system of reward within users’ minds, helping them associate achieving this email accomplishment with beauty and calmness.

One of the many (around 20,000) beautiful rewards for “Inbox Zero”

Another example of the attention to detail is how Superhuman is working to ‘hack font flourishes.’ Everything from the iconography to the typography has been relentlessly refined. Simply put, they put care into the visual details. We spend close to three hours on email each day and Superhuman’s attention to these types of details helps keep users feeling calm amid the storm of the world around them.

On top of that, Superhuman is set up in a way that you can toggle between specific emails without returning to a large list that is your inbox. This simple trick helps to trick the brain into working more efficiently. When your brain looks at a list, it starts to slow down. Navigating between screens, going in and out of menus, are interactions that require a lot of mental energy. When you can skip those, you can immerse yourself into the task at hand and stay focused. This one trick helps improve a user’s speed handling emails by ~15% because your brain doesn’t have to choose what to do next.

More than just looks, it’s about the feel. Superhuman looks to achieve this with their speed. The creator of Gmail, Paul Buchheit, had a rule that every interaction should be faster than 100ms. Why? Because 100ms is the threshold where interactions feel instantaneous. But, Superhuman wasn’t going to settle for the speed of old email clients — they decided to cut that down to 50ms, and sometimes as low as 16ms. Not only does this feel faster than fast, sometimes Chrome can’t even put something up on your screen in that short of a time!

Technology has ignited a loss of patience, and we have been trained to expect near-instantaneous responses to our actions. Sadly, we get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays — especially with email. The speed of Superhuman simply avoids frustrating lags at the moments when time is of the essence. Every interaction — start-up, search, or sending mail is snappy, which finally frees us from the clogged pipes and slow email we’re used to. Superhuman leverages the internal speed of their software as a mechanism to create a positive user experience which allows users to work through emails productively.

Productivity Features

An email experience aimed at improving productivity should be filled with features that help you save time. Built natively into Superhuman is send-later, reminders, read receipts, undo-action, and social media integration on the sidebar. All of these help users work efficiently and give them a sense of control and power — before, during, and after sending an email.

Outside of these, Superhuman has features aimed at saving users’ time organizing, typing, and sending emails.

Shortcuts are the easiest and fastest way that Superhuman makes users more productive. That’s because superhuman is made for a keyboard — not a mouse. Using keyboard commands, you can trigger and shortcuts to quickly navigate, read, and manage email.

They’ve adopted all of Gmail’s shortcuts in addition to creating their twist with Superhuman commands (there is also a Spotlight-like-search interface for every shortcut you can do in Superhuman). Removing user complexity by centralizing all functions into one place is great for usability. Here are some time-saving shortcuts:

  • ‘/’ to search
  • j’ to navigate to next, ‘k’ to navigate prior
  • ‘e’ to archive
  • ‘shift’ + up arrow or down arrow to multi-select emails in the inbox
  • ‘g” and then “i’ to get back to your inbox
  • ‘CMD’ + ‘i’ open the Superhuman command panel to do any and everything
The Superhuman Command panel, where you can search through all shortcuts

Building “keyboard first” helps people race through their inboxes with both speed and precision, minimizing the number of clicks and the amount of work needed to perform any email-related action. Shortcuts bring joy by giving users the power to complete highly complex tasks in one simple command.

Snippets drastically improve the productivity of writing emails. Simply, snippets are shortcuts for things you write over and over and over again. No longer are the days of writing the same introduction or thank you note over and over again.

For example, I introduce myself a lot and do it the same way in each email. So, using a Snippet for ‘I’m Adam, a senior College Scholar and Information Science major at Cornell’ and adding this to an email using a shortcut (CMD’ + ‘;’), would save me15 seconds each email.

In addition to phrases, snippets can also be longer paragraphs or even entire emails. You can even customize the subject, cc, and bcc fields, attachments, in addition to the body of the email. This can extremely time-saving for busy people — snippets for saying thank you, declining a meeting or solicitation, introducing yourself, important links, and anything else you find yourself repeating a lot.

With inboxes that pile up quickly, you drain time by manually filtering out what is and is not a priority. Superhuman helps solve this by letting you create multiple filtered tabs within your inbox by using Split Inbox. In essence, you can create different inboxes for your different needs.

Divide your inbox by person-to-person conversations, team emails, emails containing documents, and so much more. You can have a split for your family vs friends, different organizations you are a part of, and pretty much anything.

Setting up your splits makes email do the mental lifting of sorting and organizing your life so that you don’t have to. This helps users be efficient and productive by letting them manage several smaller inboxes rather than one massive one. Users can also quickly and easily prioritize their emails: Rather than opening your email to see 200 unread emails, using splits can make it easy to know there are only 7 urgent messages to look at. This helps users maximize their productivity and can calm users in a sea of email.

Superhuman is smart. When typing natural language into the shortcut search bar or simply typing in an email, Superhuman has the intelligence to understand what you mean or prevent you from making errors.

Let Superhuman worry about timezones for you

One feature I love is the ability to send emails in a specific timezone. When I was working for startup Assist, where 50% of the workers were remote, this feature would have been a lifesaver. With engineers all around the world, I could have just typed “tomorrow 8:00am Paris”, which you can easily see corresponds to 2:00am in New York. This simple command saves me mental math and my coworker from receiving a middle-of-the-night email.

Superman’s intelligence can help prevent embarrassing mistakes. Often, we send an email with attachments. With busy lives, we can forget to attach the document, spreadsheet, or image to the email even if that was its sole purpose. If you are ever in this situation, Superhuman will make sure you are reminded to attached the information before the email can be sent. This helps prevent silly mistakes that waste the time of the sender and the receiver.

No more “Oops, I forgot to attach…” with Superhuman’s intelligence

The Onboarding

Superhuman onboards each new customer with a video call. This may sound intrusive — we are used to being able to download and try out any app at our convenience. But, Superhuman uses this time to create a personal connection with the product and helps teach users about the features that are so amazing. In reality, this process helps grow the number of users who will pay you and stick around or tell their friends about your product.

The first step of Superhuman’s onboarding

The onboarding experience starts by explaining why your users should care about your product — it will save them time. This nifty trick helps remind users what their goals should be and primes them for the experience of learning. The key to the whole process, though, is the personalization. Rather than some dummy account to practice on when you are being on-boarded, the specialist is teaching you how to use Superhuman with your inbox, focusing on what matters to you — your projects, your team, your life. The contextualization of learning how to use the product with your own inbox helps all of the tips and tricks stick in your brain as they are taught.

Here, the mouse is disabled, letting users only progress by using keyboard commands

From a psychological perspective, people are more likely to remember things when faced with an unexpected situation. Superhuman creates a sticky situation when they ask users to go through their mailbox without a mouse since this is not what people are used to doing. To reinforce this behavior, Superhuman disables the mouse during these first few steps, allowing users to processed only using their keyboard. Disabling the mouse gentle forces users out of their typical behavior and towards actions that ultimately save them time and energy.

As well, during on-boarding, Superhuman’s specialists help teach you why the product was designed like it was. For example, when being taught to use the keys “j” and “k’” to move up and down between emails, my mental mapping started to raise a red flag. But, as explained by the specialist (to my friends), arrows are the easiest solution to remember but they aren’t the best at going fast. The “j” and “k” keys are very accessible and always in reach, therefore making it easier to work fast in all contexts. Superhuman has the luxury to build in some extra friction for the user since they have the 1-on-1 call.

This personalized care helps each user understand the product, use it in the best way for them, and feel connected to it and the team behind it. The simple truth is, customers today don’t have to be loyal, they can just move on to an array of other competitive companies without sacrificing quality or convenience. But, Superhuman goes out of their way to connect with each user on an individual level, creating the relationships that make people stick around and not switch to other products.

As a bonus, the on-boarding process and entire customer service experience invite users to reach out for help or with suggestions for improvement. This means users are thinking and caring about the product. Superhuman is creating some outstanding emotional resonance with its customers, and in a world full of faceless email applications, that connection keeps users loyal.

Sure, it’s great. But it can’t be perfect.

That’s true. So, what else can it improve on?

Below are some ideas that have popped into my head as I have used and thought more about the product. Ideally, I could perform some in-depth user research to expand these ideas into tangible options, but for now, no research has been done.

  • Often when reading or writing an email, a new idea or task comes to mind. Superhuman could help users jot down these spur of the moment thoughts by creating a “Note to self “ shortcut/feature. This could whip up a blank email automatically addressed to yourself, making it easy to jot down a quick idea or note.
  • Getting through all of your work emails is fantastic, but why not handle your personal email at the same speed? Superhuman could create a single, unified inbox for all of a user’s emails (work, personal, etc), helping them to make their entire life more productive. With the flexibility to create Splits across all contacts would solidify Superhuman as a productivity tool not only for work but your whole life.
  • Making and thinking of valuable snippets may be challenging at first — it was hard for me to curate a broad set of the use cases where pre-formatted messages would be time-saving. So, why doesn’t Superhuman release a few example templates that users can borrow and customize that demonstrate the breadth of the feature? Other companies with intense workflows, such as Notion, have done this to help users get the full value out of their product.
  • Superhuman can be really, really powerful, but it takes time to learn all of its functions and change your workflow. Superhuman could set up biweekly office hours that users can reserve for 5–10 minutes for additional video calls with a specialist. The on-boarding is a great first step to using the full array of tools on the platform, but users may want to learn more advanced tricks or get a refresher later down the line. This is another measure Superhuman can take to build a personal connection with users, continuing to engage them with features that help them be more productive with the product.

There you have it! My take on Superhuman and why I think it’s so great. From the moment you are onboarded to the augmentation of email workflows, Superhuman makes email something delightful, not painful to use. Thanks for reading and hopefully I’ll have full access soon!

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Adam Masters

Written by | twitter: @adammasters_ | information science @ Cornell | prev: @facebook, @assist | I like smart assistants | He/Him

The Startup

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