Superhuman email software is creating quite a buzz in the tech community. The company of the same name describes the product as “not another email client,” but a product “rebuilt from the ground up” that will make you “feel like you have superpowers.” Many of its users are equally effusive about how it’s revolutionized the managing of their email.
Some of that might be attributed to how it’s being cleverly marketed, requiring an invitation and a waiting list of more than 300,000, according to the company’s CEO. An old marketing trick: make it hard to get creates more interest and demand.
The Email Problem
In its more than fifteen years of existence, email has gone from an easily navigated collection of personal and business correspondence to a huge mishmash of spam, ads, promotions, invitations, receipts, and phishing schemes, all obscuring the important communications that we want to read.
Email has become our filing cabinet, to do list, and a source of all kinds of information. We’re constantly searching for attachments, previous communications, appointments, and receipts. We’re highlighting, filing, and creating folders of email to make them easier to find or look at later. No longer is email just evaluated by how well it works to compose and read email, but by how easy it is to accomplish all these other tasks. On top of all this, we’re constantly deleting, unsubscribing and blocking all the spam, distracting us from reading our important correspondence.
Yet over all these years email has barely progressed from a bunch of files and a list of messages to scroll through.
I’ve tried dozens of solutions for my own email, including products that sort my mail into folders and filter out the bad stuff. But they all require training, and none work all that reliably. The best solution I found is the quirky and somewhat complex SaneBox, an add-on to my email clients that does a pretty good job of sorting email into a whole set of folders.
I’ve used Outlook, Apple Mail, Gmail, Spark and other email clients on my Mac. My mainstay has been Gmail read through Apple Mail or Spark Mail for Mac. But Apple Mail doesn’t always play well with Gmail and is notoriously buggy. For example, Apple Mail’s send box can take many minutes to refresh and to see recently sent mail. Apple has not updated this product substantially in years, and it shows.
Like many others, my current process of checking my mail is to read through my inbox, rarely deleting read email, just reading and going down the list to the next. Often I’ll designate an email to unsubscribe or cut and past some words from the mail onto a calendar or a todo list, or forward the mail to others. I’ve never attempted to empty the inbox, because it’s so difficult to do.
Superhuman claims their product can get you to an empty inbox in just a few days and makes a strong case why that’s something you want to do. An empty inbox means your work is done for the time being. Superhuman promises that you’ll spend less time with your email and be able to eliminate all the frustration and complexity of the way you currently navigate and act on your email.
I knew I had to try it. I’m an early adopter, spend too much time doing email, and value innovation. There was no mention of price, just the opportunity to apply and join the waiting list.
I applied over a year ago. Once I answered some questions about my email practices and the computer I was using at the time, the 12-inch MacBook, I received a polite response saying I was not currently eligible because my computer was not powerful enough to work with their software.
Fast forward to early this month. Now that I’m using a new MacBook Pro (2020 model), I contacted them again and asked them if I was now eligible. They responded, making sure I knew they don’t allow multiple accounts to be integrated into their inbox, and that I still use Gmail, a requirement for Superhuman. While I now use two email addresses, an Apple address and Gmail one, I knew I could forward the Apple email to my Gmail account and get around that limitation.
The next step was to provide a credit card and make an appointment for a 30-minute consultation from one of their onboarding experts, a live person to take you through the software by sharing your screen, providing some fundamentals and answering questions. That’s also when you learn the cost is $30 per month. Ouch! …..For that amount I could get a new iPhone! That’s more than any software I now use; more than Office, more than Lightroom! Reluctantly, I decided to try it for a month and see if it was as good as they promised. I wanted to see what others were raving about.
What I’m Finding
I’m now beginning my third week of use, going through the mail in my inbox every day in a lot less time, and each time I do, I completely empty it. I’m also using Superhuman to remind me of follow up action to take. I can dispose of each mail quickly and in succession in a number of ways, including marking it read and archiving it, forwarding, responding, asking for it to return to my inbox at a specific time or just block the sender forever. All of this can be done with just a few keystrokes.
While its easy to move through my important email and get to zero, I’m constantly blocking the unimportant email that shows up in the portion of my three-part inbox in much higher quantity than the important stuff. Blocking, designating them as spam or unsubscribing, however, isn’t particularly effective. That’s mostly the fault of Gmail, but reflects as a weakness of Superhuman. I shouldn’t need to keep blocking the same spammers day after day. And if the goal is to empty all sections of your inbox, I shouldn’t have to spend more time trying to do that on the less important email.
(Note: Superhuman reached out and recommended that I not try to delete my unimportant email and just ignore it.)
As an aside, I could write an entire column – and will – on the misuse of email by marketers and politicians who think we want to see an email a day from a company or candidate whose site we once visited or campaign we contributed to. Most have given up trying to be thoughtful about what they send us, and have resorted to flooding us with excessive email, hoping a tiny fraction sticks, just like the spam phone calls.
Because of its effective search, I can find most anything in my emails almost instantaneously, and I can trust that after removing the email from my inbox temporarily, I’ll be able to retrieve it. If there’s something I want to follow up on, I can have the email return to my inbox anytime I choose. For example a shipping notification saying my order would be arriving in 5 days can show back up in my email 5 days later with a couple of keystrokes. Or notes that I need for an afternoon meeting will show up just before the meeting. No need to leave them in my inbox cluttering it up.
My inbox is separated into Important Stuff, News and Other categories by choice. You have flexibility, but are given some recommended settings. I can respond to an email with the click of a few keys and I can block a sender with the press of four keys. In fact most everything you do is with shortcut keystrokes. Once you learn the appropriate keys for what you want to do, most actions take a second or two. The actions happen quickly, no waiting, and apparently that’s the reason for needing a sufficiently powered computer. I’m fine with learning the keystrokes, but keystrokes are not only the best way to do some actions; some action is just as easily done with a trackpad, such as adding to the cc list.
The interface of Superhuman is modern, sleek and simple. The extra headers, labels, characters, and extraneous information are all stripped from each email, so it’s more like reading a letter than a conventional email. I can review my email from the list view or quickly go from one opened email to the next, reminiscent of Hey Mail that I reviewed last week, all with a single keystroke. When I empty the inbox, the screen displays an image of a serene scene.
Superhuman is not a complete stand-alone email software. It’s actually a “wrapper” or a completely new interface that’s added on top of Gmail. The underlying engine is Gmail. Most everything you do using this new interface, such as blocking senders, responding, and identifying email as spam is actually sending those commands to Gmail, which already has those functions built in, albeit often obscured and not easy to use. When you first realize that, it makes the cost of Superhuman seem even more expensive than it is. But, in reality, I’m being asked to pay for the better experience, greater convenience, saving time, and a reduction in “email frustration.”.
So is Superhuman worth $30 per month? I don’t know. I’m not yet convinced, as useful as the product is.
It’s worth $10 or $15 a month, and I don’t think I’d hesitate at that price. But I need to spend another few weeks with it. Often a new product can mesmerize, because it’s new and different. What happens after the novelty wears off? Will Superhuman be a life-changer that is well worth the cost, or something that’s nice, but not worth the money considering other alternatives?
For me this needs to be so much better and do everything so well, that it becomes something that would be a sacrifice to stop using. Right now it does 90% of the stuff well, but there are still issues that show up: the inability to stop recurrent email senders and an occasional bug when composing email. But, if you appreciate a clean minimalist design, you’ll tolerate these for the much more pleasant experience compared to any existing email service.
I can say without hesitation that Superhuman comes close to meeting its promise.