Superhuman email service: reasons for popularity and scandal with user privacy

An ambitious startup for those who spend several hours a day on mail processing got into a scandal because of the function of tracking messages reading.

Features of Superhuman

The company calls Superhuman an application that “parses mail faster than anything” and relies on the fact that its capabilities justify the cost of a subscription – $ 30 per month.

Its main feature is the speed and convenience of processing letters with the help of “hot keys”. Superhuman is faster than Gmail and allows you to create a “smart” control system of hot keys with the help of “snippets.”

For example, with one button you can answer all recipients by adding a colleague to the blind copy and pasting a template text, unsubscribe from the newsletter, or create a reminder.

The service works according to the “100 millisecond rule”, which guided the creator of Gmail Paul Buhate. Each action – downloading letters, sending or searching – should be faster than 100 ms, a threshold at which a person perceives the action instantly.

Speed ​​is achieved by downloading and indexing emails, the processing of which takes place locally on the user’s computer or on Google servers.

Of the other features:

  • In Superhuman, emails are organized in the form of chats: correspondence, quotes and conversations are hidden, leaving the user with only the last letter with the interface of a regular chat. According to users, this is more convenient than the “tails” of dozens of letters, and allows you to concentrate only on the answer.
  • Superhuman allows you to see the profiles of interlocutors in social networks, so that the user can minimally “get to know” him.
  • The application’s work is concentrated around user convenience and quick processing of letters: there are spell checking, revocation of sent letters, reminders and other built-in tools.
  • The application recognizes dates and times in letters, synchronizes with the calendar and “suggests” free time for meetings on the day planned in correspondence. If you print “next Tuesday,” Superhuman will automatically check the calendar for that day.

Superhuman Case Study

The service team began development in 2015 and for three years was in the “silence mode”. It was led by Rahul Vohra, the developer of the Rapportive extension for Gmail, which he sold to LinkedIn in 2013. Now Superhuman is paid by 15 thousand people, and becoming its user is not so simple.

Registration and first steps in Superhuman

Access to the service can only be obtained by invitation from developers or existing users. Now in the waiting queue there are more than 180 thousand people, and the service works only with Gmail.

Another difficulty – the mobile application is developed only for iOS, and you cannot download it in the App Store, you need to subscribe to the test version in TestFlight.

After receiving the invitation, you need to fill out a detailed questionnaire about the habits and standard patterns of using mail, the necessary functions and problems. This information is passed on to the product team. If the potential client does not fit the methods of using mail, he is refused an invitation.

Poll Example

Before the first launch of Superhuman, you need to pay the first month of subscription and schedule a video call with a service specialist lasting from 30 to 60 minutes.

First, the user shows how he works with mail, and then a specialist demonstrates how to work in Superhuman, and answers questions. In the process, he asks questions that it is not clear where it does not work out and so on – this forms a feeling of understanding the user’s problems and caring for him.

After a video call, the user is prompted to archive all the mail in order to “start work from scratch.” This helps to create a starting point for changing habits and human behavior, since working with mail is one of the oldest and most familiar online functions, and you cannot change the user’s habits unless you start from scratch.

Superhuman main window without Jed Christiansen letters

Why Superhuman Aroused User Interest

“We have an insane viral level that has not been seen since Dropbox or Slack,” Thief said in a conversation with The New York Times. In June 2019, Superhuman raised $ 33 million of investment, led the round of Andreessen Horowitz fund. Startup is estimated at $ 260 million.


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According to David Ulevich, Andreessen Horowitz’s partner, Superhuman is “the future of work,” and as soon as he started using the service, he “couldn’t think of anything else.”

Before launching the product and expanding its capabilities, Superhuman identified its target audience and concentrated on those users who are most likely to love it and recommend it to their friends with similar needs.

The startup was guided by people with a large volume of letters appreciating speed of work, productivity, beautiful design. Their audience uses extensions, most of which are already integrated into the service, for example, delayed publication and cancellation of a letter. In particular, the service has become popular among designers, technical directors and venture investors.

Superhuman Command Line


To engage the user and interest him, Superhuman creates an “elitism” around the service. This happens not only due to the cost of subscription and private access to invites, but also to accompany the user at every step, so that he understands the concept of the product and gets carried away with it.

For this, for example, an introductory video conference is held with a specialist and weekly tips come in to speed up work and become more productive.

First, every day, and then every week, Superhuman sends letters with short instructions about the functionality of the service: they contain an introductory note in a conversational style, a short description of the problem that the service solves, and a small GIF file with a demonstration of its operation.

The letters are accompanied by a questionnaire from a support specialist with questions and suggestions on a specific function. Sent profiles are read and answered for each item, and problems and suggestions are passed on to developers and product managers. So Superhuman quickly changes the service in accordance with the preferences of customers.

Privacy scandal

One of the special features of Superhuman is Read Receipt. It determines whether the recipient has read the letter. To do this, the service embeds a “pixel” in each message, with the help of which it saves the time of each letter opening and the location at the time of opening, up to the region. The function works with all email clients, and you can disable it only by turning off the download of images in letters.


Read Receipt was noticed by former Twitter design manager Mike Davidson. In his opinion , the company’s DNA is formed at an early stage, and any unethical decision will affect the development of the product.

In the case of Superhuman, the hidden ability to track the location of users, also activated by default, is a precedent after which a startup can manipulate the application and user data in any way.

Moreover, Davidson analyzed the privacy policy of Superhuman and concluded that this is an example of a legally universal set of words that not only does not protect users, but also allows you to manipulate data, for example, sell location information to third-party companies. After the publication of Davidson, the paragraph he cited from the privacy policy was removed from the site.

In total, Davidson identified four problems associated with Read Receipt:

  • Location data may be used by cybercriminals.
  • Read status is enabled by default.
  • Recipients of mail from a Superhuman user cannot refuse tracking.
  • Superhuman users cannot turn off image downloads and also track.

Superhuman reaction

On July 4, Superhuman founder Rahul Thief posted a response to Davidson on Medium. According to Thief, when developing the Read Receipt function, the company focused on speed, automation and the ability to see when a person has read the letter, since this email client is for specialists and experienced users. The location was determined approximately – at the country level, Superhuman intentionally did not determine the city.

He admitted that the company did not consider the possibility of using location data by intruders, as it “focused solely on customer needs.” According to him, after criticism and two-day deliberation on how to solve the problem of tracking the reading of letters, Superhuman made changes to the service:

  • Superhuman no longer saves location information and deleted all stored data about it.
  • On July 4, an updated version of the service was released, which does not display the location of the user who read the letter.
  • Read Receipt is disabled by default. Users who need it can enable it manually in the settings.
  • Superhuman will allow you to disable remote image loading – this will block the receipt of tracking pixels in letters.

According to reviewers from The New York Times and TechCrunch , the biggest hurdle when working with Superhuman is its cost. But if a user is willing to pay $ 30 to feel special, comfortable using mail and saving time on processing it – Superhuman is worth a try, reporters say.


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