Superhuman, Startups and Privacy, Ethical Product Design

Last week a company called Superhuman made some news when they publicly corrected course on some features of their email solution that raised public concern over privacy.

If you missed the story last week, I would not be surprised. Nor would I be surprised if many of you had not heard of Superhuman before. The company built an email solution, which is only available via invitation currently, that claims to give you email superpowers. A brief blurb on its website highlights the following features:

Superhuman is gorgeous. Blazingly fast. And comes with advanced features that make you feel superhuman. A.I. Triage. Undo Send. Insights from social networks. Follow-up Reminders, Scheduled Messages, and Read Statuses. To name but a few.

When early users on Twitter started talking about Superhuman and their fondness of the product, there were criticisms of the high price for an email being given they charge $30 a month for the service. But, those early customers defended the price given how much they appreciated the time saving and efficiency Superhuman provided them. Most of these early users were Superhuman investors and friends of the investor community. There are two features, in particular, that got the most attention: location tracking and read receipts.

Location tracking gave users of Superhuman the ability to see where the recipients of their email location are at the time of opening the email. In their blog post, they said they addressed the location tracking and immediately disabled it. They said they did not consider how this could be used by bad actors. Which is a point I want to address shortly?

The second was read-receipts, which gave the sender the ability to see not just that you have opened their email but also how many times. Here again, the superhuman has addressed this feature making read-receipts off by default but still allowing a user to turn this feature on if they want. The key point here is the recipient has no way of knowing they are being tracked, or that their read statuses are being sent and no way for them to opt-out of this feature.

There are a number of interesting points to be made here. The primary one, in my mind, is how the product design led to these features that focused much more on the potential customer than the person at the other end of that customer’s experience. Note this statement from Superhuman’s CEO Rahul Vora.

We take the second criticism to heart too. It made sense for read statuses to be on by default when our user base was early adopters. They knew exactly what they were buying and were excited to buy it.

On this point, I thought this tweet from Josh Constantine was apt.

In the blog post highlighting the criticisms and the changes they were making to Superhuman, Rahul defends the read receipts feature by giving examples of several other power user email programs which also enable this feature and have cited use cases like sales follow-ups and customer support. The bigger question here is the moral imperative of the feature, not the other examples which enable it as justification for the feature.

The biggest point here is that the end-user can not opt-out of being tracked and, furthermore, has no idea they are being tracked. While customer service or sales follow up sounds like a valid reason for this feature, I certainly don’t want to get an email from marketers or salespeople saying they know I’ve looked at their email 5 times and are wondering why I haven’t responded.

Ethical Product Design
Given the bright light Apple has shined on privacy, I think it is safe to assume that product design going forward is likely going to have to be thought through form a more ethical standpoint. I make this point in particular for the startup community, as exampled by Superhuman, that the entire end to end experience of consumer privacy needs to be thought through.

This is a new wrinkle and one that I’m not seeing be addressed in many of the consumer startup pitch decks I get to see from my work with angel investors and the broader VC community. The idea of ethical product design may take some time to take root fully, but I have no doubt we are on the cusp of a change in thinking when it comes to overall product design and consumer privacy. Perhaps this is something that needs to start being included in business school and the broader educational system. It is also something that I think many VCs need to grasp when it comes to their investments in both the consumer and the enterprise.

The Power of the Consumer Voice
The last point I want to make is around the power of the consumer’s voice. Interestingly, the social pressure Superhuman felt did not come from mass media coverage criticizing their features but from an outpouring on Twitter of people highlighting how these features are an invasion of their privacy. The power of Twitter to enable the voice of the consumer and pressure a company to make a change was on high-display last week with this situation with Superhuman, how is a little known startup.

If the social outcry on Twitter, for a little known startup, was able to hold them accountable and drive change than just imagine when something like this happens to bigger more well-known companies. Essentially, Twitter has proven to be a powerful enabler of the consumer’s voice and a tool for holding institutions accountable. Despite one’s opinion of Twitter, the ability for a collective outcry to be amplified in one place is a benefit, particularly in a situation like the one with Superhuman and driving positive change.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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