How game design can inform product design

Hrishikesh Pardeshi
Co-founder, Product & Dev at Flexiple ($700,000 revenue) & Remote Tools.

Table of Contents

  • Why is game design worth doing?
  • Game design vs gamification
  • Elements of game design (and translating them to product design)
    1. Goals
    2. Emotions
    3. Controls
    4. Toys
    5. Flow
  • Closing Thoughts

Emotion is very powerful and products that create emotional experiences, make users fall in love with them, play with them and talk about them.

Game design is intriguing. Games are designed to create emotional experiences and hence, are able to form a strong connect with users (or players).

The real question is, can we design products that are inherently games?

Rahul Vohra, CEO of Superhuman, says he’s been obsessed with one question throughout his life, “how do you design a game?”. His experience in game design and his obsession for it, is the reason why he built Superhuman with first principles of game design.

In the previous post, we looked briefly at what constitutes the hype that is Superhuman. In this article, I want to get deeper into understanding how Rahul Vohra has built a full-blown game beneath Superhuman and what lessons we stand to derive in building products

Now, don’t get me wrong here. The gaming aspect of Superhuman isn’t quintessential when you build your own product but it surely is an interesting, fresh take on building products.

We will start by looking at why exactly is game design worth doing, moving on to understanding how gamification differs from game design and finally leading to the core of this article, principles/ elements of game design. Throughout, we will look at how Superhuman incorporates the principles of game design.

Why is game design worth doing?

As a product manager or entrepreneur, you worry about what your users want or need and rightly so. That’s how successful products are built, right?

Well, that is why most business softwares today feel like work. We HAVE to file our expenses. We HAVE to do our e-mail. We HAVE to input data into CRM.

But what if we could make business software feel less like work and more like play? We actually can, with game design.

You see no one needs a game to exist. There are no requirements. And when you are making a game, you obsess over how the users feel and not worry about what they want or need.

And when your product has a game, your users don’t just use it. They play it. They fall in love with it. They find it fun. They tell their friends. And that’s why game design is worth doing.

Game design vs gamification

Now, you might recollect products that have gamification like points, levels, badges, trophies built in. Isn’t that similar to game design?

Game design and gamification are two entirely different things.

To understand how, we actually have to dig into human motivation.

Researchers typically divide motivation into two – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. With intrinsic motivation, we do things because we find them inherently satisfying and interesting. But with extrinsic motivation, we do things to earn rewards.

Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation. Here’s a fun story to substantiate this claim.

In the 1970s, Stanford researchers recruited 51 children aged between three and four. All of these kids were previously interested in drawing. Now some of the kids were told they would get a reward certificate. The others, however, weren’t told about reward. So they didn’t even know one existed.

Now, all the children were invited into separate rooms and asked to draw for six minutes, after which they would either get a reward or not. And over the next few days, they were observed to see how much of their time they would continue drawing by themselves.

Now the children who didn’t get the reward, they spent 17 percent of their time drawing. But the children who did get a reward, they only spent 8 percent of their time drawing (probably because they felt they deserve the reward anyway). In other words, the reward had halved their motivation.

Gamification, by design, works on the drive to earn rewards. Rewards fundamentally undermine intrinsic motivation and that is ultimately why gamification doesn’t work as well as game design.

Game design, on the other hand, is driven by intrinsic motivation and hence, is much superior.

Elements of game design (and translating them to product design)

As it turns out, there is no unifying theory designed to create games. We have to draw upon the art and science of things like psychology, mathematics, interaction, design, storytelling, and many more. In doing so, there are five critical factors – goals, emotions, controls, toys and flow.


We are all familiar with goals in a business context and we know how to create good business goals. It turns out that games also need goals.

In fact, goals are a defining feature of games. And for a game, good goals are:

  1. Concrete
  2. Achievable and,
  3. Rewarding.

For Superhuman’s users, there is a very clear and concrete goal – Get to inbox zero.

Good goals are also achievable. And this is one of the main reasons why Rahul & team decided to manually onboard Superhuman’s users. For each new user, there is a live concierge onboarding. This is a 30 minute one-to-one video call with a ‘customer delight specialist’.

The onboarding specialist teaches you faster workflows to get to inbox zero. You learn powerful shortcuts so you never have to touch the mouse. And if you’re very far away from inbox zero, you also get help to wipe that slate clean so you are within a stone’s throw to achieve the goal.

Finally, there’s the rewarding piece. When you do hit inbox zero, you feel triumph over your email – a previously rare and very rewarding feeling.

Now if we take a step back and look at most business software, they don’t have clear goals. And if there are goals, they are often unachievable or very unrewarding. So if you want to make software like its a game, then you should make goals that are concrete, achievable and rewarding.


The best games create strong emotions because strong emotions are the foundation of our memory. In order to do that, we need to be able to analyse emotions. And for that, we need a vocabulary.

There are many models of human emotion in research. The most famous is Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. Plutchik identified eight core emotions. These are emotions like joy, sadness, annoyance, fear, grief etc. And he arranged them on a wheel such that opposite emotions are across from each other.


Probably the most interesting thing about this model is you can blend adjacent emotions to create new, more complex feelings. For example, you can blend joy and anticipation and you come up with optimism. You can blend sadness and surprise and you come up with disapproval.

However, for game designers, these emotions may not be nuanced enough. There could be a need for more subtle emotions than academia provides us. Hence, the Superhuman team uses the model by the Hunter Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership. It contains the subtleties and the nuances that a game needs.


Controls can actually be the number one reason why a game succeeds. Every good game has controls that incorporate emotions and are robust.

Imagine you’re playing Street Fighter or Smash Brothers. It would be incredibly frustrating if you press a complex series of inputs and then your characters flop around and die. But that’s precisely how business software works today.

Let’s say, for example, I want to email someone named <name>. The shortcut to compose a new email in Gmail is C while to do so in a new tab is D. Now if I hit C & start typing the name and do this relatively fast, Gmail will swallow the characters after C and I will end up with two drafts. And this is true almost every business software today. Drive it fast like you might do a video game and it will drop about half of the inputs.

The idea behind video game controls is to make them feel seamless so you can drive them as hard and as fast as you want to. And it never breaks the emotion so that you are one with your avatar in the game.


There’s a subtle difference between toys and games. We play WITH toys, but we play games. A ball is a toy, but baseball and football are games. And as it turns out, the best games are built out of toys because then they have fun on multiple levels, the level of the toy and also the game itself.

A favourite toy in Superhuman is the “auto-complete” feature. It’s just the box that you use to snooze e-mails and, you type with a few characters & punch an email for later. So for example, 2D will become two days, 3H will become 3 hours, 1 MO will become 1 month.

Auto-complete is fun because it indulges playful exploration.

What can it do?

How does it work?

When does it break?

And it’s not long before people try to start breaking it.

Rahul says users do things like enter a string of 10s. And it turns out that’s October the 10th at 10PM. And then try to see what happens if it’s a string of 2s? And if you did that today? That’s February the 2nd, 2020 at 2PM.

Then they might start doing more complex things and find more pleasant surprises like the fact that they don’t have to do timezone math. He also says that most users are delighted to find that if you really want, you can snooze an email to never. You can literally hit snooze and type never. And that email will never come back.


Flow is a state of mind. Flow is the intense and focused concentration on the present. Flow is so absorbing that we don’t worry about the past or think about the future. Flow is so demanding that we don’t care about any other thing.

Flow so easy that we always know what to do next. Flow is so powerful that it alters our subjective experience of time. Time can either flash by in an instant or stretch out to infinity. And most importantly, flow is so rewarding that our activities become intrinsically motivating, which, as we know from earlier, is the most powerful and effective form of motivation.

So how do you incorporate flow into your product?

  1. We need to enumerate the conditions for flow. Users must always know what to do next.
  2. Users must always know how to do it.
  3. Users must be free from distractions because disruptions take away from our attention.
  4. Users must receive clear and immediate feedback.
  5. Finally, we must find a balance between highly perceived skill and highly perceived challenge. If the challenge is too high, users feel worried or worse, anxious. And if the challenge is too easy, they will feel bored or worse, apathetic.

Talking specifically of point 5, it is quite difficult to create the balance of ambition and challenge. In game design, it is more of an art. Let’s quickly look at how this is achieved in Superhuman.

People come into superhuman with a wide variety of skill levels and a wide variety of challenge levels. However, for almost everybody, superhuman massively increases the skill level.

But what if your email wasn’t that challenging to begin with or you were previously already highly skilled at email? If there aren’t enough balance shifts, you won’t be in flow. Either you’ll find your email is too easy or you’ll find your email is still too challenging.

So here’s what the Superhuman team has done. They have increased the challenge level deliberately so that users get in flow. The challenge is not only to reach to Inbox Zero but to do so without ever touching the mouse.

Closing Thoughts

Game design is intriguing, fun and helps you create experiences that connect with users. Maybe Superhuman is a game and that’s the approach Rahul took. However, you don’t have to design a game when you build the next feature or your next product.

But there are certain things we can surely borrow from game design so that we just don’t solve the user’s need but create a product that emotionally connects with the user.

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