Building the fastest email experience in the world with Lead Designer at Superhuman
The Grit

Building the fastest email experience in the world with Lead Designer at Superhuman

Juraj MihalikJuraj Mihalik

Hi Teresa. Let’s start with who you are and what you do?

I currently lead design at Superhuman, a startup in San Francisco that helps you get through your inbox twice as fast as before. I am a product designer and I focus on building an email experience that prioritizes speed and design for mobile and desktop platforms. My (very geeky) passion is beautiful typography, something that is, without coincidence, imperative in the making of email software.

Tell me about your design journey. How did it all start?

I was always artsy as a child, and by that, I mean, I was often doodling some indecipherable stick figures on pieces of napkins. When I was 4 years old, my mom enrolled me in a drawing and coloring class by chance, because our preferred activity, ballet, was closed that weekend. My interest in art grew in my early years of elementary school. By 11 years old, I was obsessed with Yahoo's Geocities, which led me to the world of WYSIWYG website builders, marquee banner text effects, and custom page scrollbars. Through Geocities, I learned basic HTML and Javascript (hello, Dynamic Drive!) and made a series of fansites for all the Disney characters I loved: Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse, various princesses, etc. I played around with basic coding scripts and thought of ways to drive traffic to my site, such as writing a quiz in which people can find out which Winnie the Pooh character they are most similar to, or participating in webrings.

In my high school years, I took website-making more "seriously." I bought some domains and tried to earn money through affiliate ad programs. To make my ads prettier, I learned Photoshop and made my own animated Pooh-themed banners that gave me a couple of cents per click. I shortly after that fell in love with Photoshop, Illustrator, and the works and decided to study graphic design in university. In my last year of high school, a yearbook class changed the direction of my design passion from digital to print, and so I focused all of my studies in university on editorial design.

After graduating from college, I worked at multiple women's magazines before I eventually joined an advertising agency where I was re-introduced to website design through my client projects. At one point, I was asked by a developer how I envisioned a map UI would appear responsively on smaller screen sizes, and I offered a blank stare before thinking, well, I never even thought about it. I remember reflecting on how exciting it was for me to recognize that there is so much more to creating digital experiences than the usual one-way consumption in print medium. From that interaction, my love for digital was rekindled, and I was determined to find a job in that space. I ended up working at a digital consulting agency for some years and led design teams in Toronto and New York before making the switch to join a product company as an in-house designer, where I am now.

What was your very first design job?

My first design job was not an official design job… When I was in high school, I led a program at my community library called “Email / Excel Basics,” where I taught adults and seniors a 1-hour crash course on Hotmail and Excel. To promote the program, I created posters to advertise the free classes and got paid in volunteer hours as part of my high school graduation requirement.

Before I even knew of accessibility as a design consideration, I remember learning to design the posters with large font sizes so that the text can be easily read by seniors who frequented the community library, and to use colours that offered high contrast to compensate for the not-so-great library printer quality.

You’re now Lead Designer at Superhuman. How did you get here?

Before I joined Superhuman, I wasn’t actively seeking out a job in the email space – I just thought of email as another “thing” I needed to do each day. I came across Superhuman when I was connected with someone whose email signature was “Sent via Superhuman.” I clicked on the link and was, admittedly, initially skeptical of their promise in delivering the fastest email experience. I wanted to sign up for access, and before doing so, I researched a lot about the product and the team. My skepticism turned into intrigue as I learned of Superhuman’s desire and dedication to transform the productivity space. I later found out that they were hiring a designer and applied.

I was drawn to Superhuman because of its impassioned team, worthy mission, and unique design challenges. The team blew me away with their unmatched drive and clear vision. I also connected on a personal level with their mission to build a tool that actually helps people disconnect from technology by giving them back the time that they otherwise would have spent on email. As for the product, I was fascinated by the design challenges that come with building an experience that has a hyper-focus on speed while in parallel, being uniquely elegant in a traditionally non-interesting space such as email.

Superhuman Screenshot

Right now, I’m the lead – and only – designer at Superhuman. My role requires me to work closely with the CEO, mobile, and desktop teams. I’m essentially at the intersection of product and engineering. I collaborate with these teams by working closely with the product at the inception to identify problems and come up with features, as well as with engineers to ensure the implementation of designs and interactions is of remarkable quality.

So far, I’ve enjoyed working at this hyper-growth phase and have led some fascinating projects, my favorite being the launch of our dark theme for iOS. Dark themes are trending right now, but it’s actually quite tricky to create a delightful dark mode. I enjoyed the challenge of designing a dark theme for Superhuman that stuck to our design principles and is readable, balanced, and delightful, while also delivering all of the expected benefits (like reducing eye strain and battery consumption).

Can you please explain what Superhuman does?

Superhuman is the fastest email experience in the world. Our users get through their inbox twice as fast as before, and many see inbox zero for the first time in years. At Superhuman, the design is never an afterthought nor a function that is any less important than product or engineering. It is valued as one of our core product, tenets — as a way to bring delight to our customers.

To create a delightful email experience, we design Superhuman with minimal UI and ample white space. Our zen-like environment allows our users to stay in flow when writing and processing emails. In this sense, the design is extremely purposeful and deliberate: we do not introduce superfluous decorative elements, complicated interactions, or overly-arresting buttons that distract people from their emails.

We also believe in the power of invisible design — design decisions that do not manifest something visually explicit but serve a much greater value than what meets the eye. For example, every line of text in Superhuman is set against a 4px baseline grid to offer maximal visual organization and ease our eyes when reading long lines of copy. We also intentionally hide what may be to some of the most crucial buttons in email, such as reply and forward icons, only to reinforce our keyboard-first user experience as the fastest way to go through emails.

What are you currently working on at Superhuman?

Currently, I am working on enabling our customers to refer their friends and colleagues to Superhuman in a fast and easy manner. To access Superhuman, people may either sign up to be on our 250k waitlist or skip the list altogether by receiving a referral from an existing user. We want our customers to gift access to Superhuman to those who they think will benefit from seeing inbox zero for the first time. With this in mind, I am redesigning our referral flow for both desktop and mobile platforms to make the process faster and more intelligent for people to use.

What kind of challenges does your team face?

Superhuman is, in many ways, an unconventional approach to email. From focusing on a shortcuts-first interface on our desktop platform to showing beautiful photographs when inbox zero is reached, my team and I face the challenge of building a product that introduces a new way for people to work through their inboxes. We counter commonly learned habits from other applications to create an email workflow that is ultimately a lot faster for our customers.

Superhuman Inbox Zero

For example, a classic gesture in many feed-based apps is a pull-to-refresh interaction. But, in Superhuman, pulling on a screen of emails does not refresh the inbox. Rather, the inbox is constantly at a state of being the most up to date, and the gesture instead triggers search, a feature that we believe in serving much more value than reinforcing a psychological dependency for people to mindlessly refresh their apps to receive new content.

Superhuman is building the fastest email experience in the world. As a designer, how do you support this objective?

I stay true to our product philosophies when analyzing feedback from customers. I don't take customer feedback at face value but instead, try to understand the root of their problem or frustration. For example, our mobile app's exclusion of back buttons has solicited people writing in with notes like "The lack of a back button and relying on swipe gesturing is kind of poor when there's the space to put a back button in there."

The feedback makes complete sense: there is definitely room for a back button. One logical approach may be to introduce a visual indicator to allow people to tap and return to their previous screen. However, back buttons are intentionally not present in our app to save people time from reaching over to the top left corner of the screen where they usually can be found (this is even more awkward for single-handed-phone-holders with their ever-increasing device sizes). Instead, in Superhuman, people can swipe from any point from the left edge towards the right and return to their previous view. Staying true to our product philosophy in which speed is at utmost importance, the underlying problem presented in the feedback was actually this: we were not educating people enough on the swipe gesture, causing frustration for our customers. In the end, the design solution was to create a net new section of in-app tutorials to explain commonly used gestures in our app.

Another way I design for speed is to make sure I do not over design. For example, animations that occur as part of providing feedback after an interaction is usually regarded as delightful or pretty, but in many cases, the extra flourish changes the perception of the interaction itself to one that feels slower. It has, therefore, been really important for me to collaborate closely with the engineering team to create interactions that are intuited as fast because even the slickest designed prototype when implemented, can feel different and sluggish.

How do you approach user onboarding?

All of our customers are on-boarded through a 1:1 video call with one of our onboarding specialists. This is not something that I am involved in directly since it is a personalized session, but I do work with the onboarding team to learn about the feedback they receive from new customers and am constantly thinking of ways to improve our user experience. Sometimes I even shadow these calls so that I can get real-time feedback and see customers' reactions first hand.

What excites you the most about design in 2020?

Two things:

  1. I’ve enjoyed the prevalence of discussions on ethics in recent years as they pertain to technology, and I am most excited in 2020 to see how designers from all industries may look at their role and level of influence differently in instituting practices that create space for responsible design.
  2. I see Figma as an end of an era for Sketch and am stoked to see how it will transform design processes and workflows as it continues to push awesome features, such as the latest Auto Layout!

How do you educate yourself?

Most of my design news come from my Twitter feed. My favorite newsletters are thematically similar: Kai Brach’s Dense Discovery and Craig Mod’s Roden provide critical commentary that spans the intersection of art, software, and culture and analyzes what it means to live in an age of pervasive technology. Other long-form favorites of mine including writing by Frank Chimero and Kevin Simler. My absolute most enjoyable in-person talks are a series of graphic design talks hosted by Letterform Archive in San Francisco.

What’s an interesting or fun fact about yourself we wouldn’t find on your social media?

I have a huge affinity for the analog world. Books over kindles. 35mm over DSLR. Letters over emails (if anyone would like to be a penpal with me, let me know!). The physical world is so much more personalized, tactile, and (compared to digital) “inconvenient” — I find all of that to be very grounding as it reminds me to take the time to appreciate slower living amidst our fast-paced culture popularized by technology.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

When I’m not working, I’m often climbing — whether it is mountains on my road bike or boulders at an indoor gym. Or, I’m immersing myself in one of my five half-read non-fictions while indulging in a tub of ice cream. I also really enjoy hosting and cooking up fun dinners, though lately, I haven’t had the time to do that as much. Lastly, I enjoy traveling and taking photos along the way.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

They can connect with me on Twitter @ifbirdsfly or on Elpha @teresaman.

Bonus Question: What’s your favorite avocado recipe?

My go-to guacamole “recipe” where all the ingredients are measured … by taste: avocados, freshly ground pepper and salt, lime juice, fresh garlic, red onion, cilantro, and the real star of the show: mango chunks!

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