Game Design for Business Software PMs

When you think of business software products, do you imagine something entertaining, fun, exciting, and unexpected? Perhaps, but more likely, you picture something functional, standardized, and practical. After all, its purpose is to help you do your everyday job.

Rahul Vohra, founder and CEO of innovative email tool Superhuman (and an avid gamer), rejects the idea that business software must conform to the status quo. In fact, he encourages the builders and managers of software products to incorporate game design into their applications to foster greater enjoyment.

During yesterday’s Pendomonium Virtual event, Rahul shared eleven game design principles that business software PMs can build into their products to create a more engaging, immersive — and yes, fun — user experience.

Game design is …

To answer this question, you first need to define what a “game” is. A game is something fun that you play. It’s not something you play with (like a toy), and it doesn’t deliver pleasure alone. Not all pleasurable activities — taking a hot bath, for example — are really “fun.” True fun requires surprise. So, we could define fun as a “pleasant surprise.” And a game is anything that encourages play and delivers pleasant surprises.

Game design is NOT …

During his session, Rahul pointed out that many people confuse game design with gamification. You’ve almost certainly seen examples of gamification in product — users receiving badges or points for completing certain activities, for instance. However, research has shown that gamification isn’t all that effective in driving productivity. The promise of an external reward (extrinsic motivation) tends to decrease intrinsic motivation or doing something simply for the enjoyment of it. And intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than extrinsic motivation.

Ten factors, eleven principles

Now that we know what a game is and isn’t, how do we make a good game? Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer to that question and no one true method of game design. However, keeping ten key factors in mind when building your product can help you delight your users and keep them coming back.


Any good game has a goal (win the race, save the princess, score the most points, etc.). According to Rahul, a good goal is three things: concrete, achievable, and rewarding

With Superhuman, the user’s goal is to reach “inbox zero,” the magical and hard-to-achieve moment of having no unread emails. This goal is both concrete (specific) and rewarding (satisfying to complete). However, if you have tens of thousands of unread emails in your inbox like I do, it might not seem achievable. Superhuman addresses this by offering a concierge onboarding service and sharing shortcuts to help users move within reach of the inbox zero goal.

Principle 1: Create goals that are concrete, achievable, and rewarding.


As a PM, you’ve probably heard the saying, “People may forget what your product does, but they’ll never forget how it made them feel.” That’s because strong emotions are the foundation of memories. Analyzing emotion is difficult, though. And the best games evoke complex emotions — not just happy/sad, but optimism/pride/triumph/excitement. At Superhuman, the team uses The Junto Institute’s emotion wheel as the basis of their shared vocabulary surrounding the feelings they want to enhance or avoid in their product design.

Principle 2: Design for nuanced emotion.


You’re probably picturing a game controller like a Nintendo Switch right now. Business software products, however, tend to have controls that are far less sensitive and reactive than those of a gaming device. According to Rahul, this is an area where software companies should invest heavily in improved functionality

Principle 3: Create rapid and robust controls.


A resonant truth is a core belief that many people share, although they’re unlikely to ever speak it out loud. Rahul used the film Titanic as an example. Why does it resonate with so many viewers, even decades later? Because it illustrates a resonant truth: that love is stronger than anything. Your product’s resonant truth isn’t going to come from user interviews or focus groups — it’s much deeper than that.

Principle 4: Find your resonant truth.


How the heck do you include toys in your business software product? In some ways, features can be thought of as “toys” whenever they encourage playful exploration or offer pleasant surprises. Rahul cited Superhuman’s “remind me” email snooze feature as an example of an in-app toy. Users can play around with different language in the snooze feature, entering times in terms of minutes, hours, and even phrases (“in a fortnight and a half, NYC time”). It’s useful, fun, and delightfully surprising.

Principle 5: Make fun toys and combine them into games.


Most of us are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which states that higher-level needs can be reached only after lower-level ones have been achieved. For example, you’re not going to be finding self-actualization if you’re not getting enough food to eat. Most business software products focus only on the “achievement” aspect of the self-esteem level– finishing your day-to-day tasks. But at Superhuman, they strive to fulfill multiple needs, including mastery, recognition, and belonging. They make their product challenging, aspirational, and social.

Principle 6: Serve multiple human needs.


Pleasure comes in many forms, from sensation and challenge to discovery and fellowship. There’s some overlap between types of pleasure and with Maslow’s needs. However, quite a few things that we don’t necessarily need are pleasurable, too. Examples include giving someone a gift, beating someone in a game, and hearing a funny joke. So, where are users finding pleasure in your application? Can you intensify that pleasure? Can you add more forms of pleasure?

Principle 7: Think deeply about pleasure.


How many pieces of business software include avatars? Not many. However, they’re an essential component of just about every video game and allow players to project their identity into the experience. At Superhuman, they use something called “focus” to create a type of avatar. The focus follows five rules:

  1. There can only be one focus.
  2. It should always be obvious where your focus is.
  3. You should be able to move your focus.
  4. You should be able to move your focus anywhere you want.
  5. Your focus cannot be lost.

Principle 8: Follow the rules of focus.

Interest curves

Just about every form of entertainment follows an interest curve, and games are no exception. First, the “hook” grabs your attention. Then, your interest builds until you reach the “grand finale.” At Superhuman, that hook is their concierge onboarding service. As users interact with their product, they experience both delight and frustration, but overall, their interest grows. And in the end, they hit inbox box.

Principle 9: Fit your experience to an interest curve.


We’ve all experienced the power of flow or being “in the zone.” Tasks flow quickly from one to the next, and we complete each one with skill and ease. Flow requires a few preconditions, including knowing what to do next, getting immediate feedback, a lack of distractions, and a balance between challenge and ability. However, achieving flow is so wonderful that the activity itself becomes intrinsically motivating — you want to do it just to do it!

Principle 10: Make the next action obvious.

Principle 11: Give clear and immediate feedback with no distraction.

Want to hear more about game design from Rahul? Check out his most recent episode of the Product Love Podcast.