Speed as a Feature – The Discourse #21
What's the speed feature stack and what are the apps that offer this experience
Come for the speed, stay for the workflow.
Increasingly, we are seeing more and more apps focus on ‘speed’ as a differentiating feature. Why is this so?
Superhuman is one of the most famous examples of this trend, but there are plenty of others that have the same approach. Is it purely the time savings, or is it something else? What kind of consumers value time over money?
I was curious to understand this link and here's what I found. So let’s dive in!
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Time is a scarce resource
Let’s begin with the example of Superhuman and email. There is a certain demographic that receives an inordinate amount of emails - mostly founders, VCs, salespeople, and executives. They have to take out time to get through it.
I know I’m not a part of this demographic, but for those of you who fall in this category, Superhuman promises that you can go through your email in half the time. So, if you were spending 2 hours on email every day, you would now spend just one hour. This adds up over time, and you could save ~20 hours per month.
And if you're privileged enough to be reading this, time is your only scarce resource. Plus, if you know the per-hour value of your time, you know that it makes a big difference.
This time saved while going through emails can be used on other productive and creative tasks. Or on spending it on things that you enjoy.
Now, let’s look at what features make this possible.
The Speed Feature Stack
Paul Bucheit, the creator of Gmail, famously said that if the time spent in any interaction is less than 100ms, it is considered seamless. Ironically, Gmail of 2020 is full of bloat and flouts the 100ms rule all the time.
So, how do we increase the speed of interactions?
The first layer is the tech. The first step is to use a modern tech stack that fits your use case. You can take inspiration from what other startups like Airbnb, ProductHunt, and Superhuman have used.
After that, a lot can be done to improve the performance of apps like caching, pre-fetching data, loading scripts asynchronously, minifying, compressing images, etc
Anything more is out of the scope of this article. You can read up more on this topic in articles like this.
The keyboard was the primary way we interacted with the computer for a long time before the invention of GUI.
Using the keyboard to navigate is faster than using the mouse. This is because productivity apps usually involve you writing something. And if you move your hand away from the keyboard, it becomes slower.
Whereas, using the mouse involves Fitt's law, which says that the time taken to move a pointer to an object depends on the distance between the mouse pointer and the object size.
The reason behind this is that mouse movement is imprecise. Clicking on a smaller button that is further away, requires more effort.
Though using the keyboard doesn’t have this problem, the shortcuts need to be discovered and then learned.
Natural Language Processing
NLP allows users to type in regular language and the app figures out what you meant.
For example, Todoist. I can create a task with just the keywords — "Write article at 10 am tom #Writing", and it would convert that into action.
If you're searching through tasks or emails, it has to be fetched optimally. A lot of tweaks can be done to the way you fetch the results to make it seamless. Once again, Superhuman breaks it down in this Medium post.
At the end of the day, the app has to make you go through your work as fast and seamless as possible. It can’t just be fast, but not helping you achieve much.
Workflows can queue up important things you need to look at and keep getting you through them. This reduces the urge to procrastinate by having you focus on one thing at a time, in sequence.
Where do we spend most of our time?
Like almost everything in life, self-awareness is important.
So, you need to first introspect about where do you spend your time the most? Once you know this, you will be able to make a better decision.
As a Product Manager, I know that I used to spend a lot of time in JIRA. In fact, at one point, I was spending 20% of my time on it. I knew that any reduction to this without a reduction in its effectiveness would be very valuable.
For you, it might be different. You might spend more time in Excel, Docs, Calendars, or any other app.
So, let's see where we can reduce your time spent.
Note-taking or document apps
Google Docs/ Notion / Slite / Roam
Google Docs is the oldest of this lot and is not designed for speed. For example, if you want to change the formatting of text to Header 1, you would have to go to the title bar and change it or learn a difficult shortcut like Cmd + Opt + 1
Whereas, newer apps like Notion/Slite/Roam offer the ability to change this directly in context using markdown: # for Header 1, ## for Header 2, or by a / command to change the color, header style, etc.
While Notion is definitely not known for its speed, the keyboard shortcuts help. Roam and Slite are built for speed in better ways.
All offer reasonably good search of other documents with different keyboard shortcuts (Cmd P for Notion, Cmd U for Roam, and Cmd K for Slite). Imagine my state having to remember so many keyboard shortcuts! I wish there would’ve been uniformity in commands :)
Enough has already been written about Superhuman. It has pioneered most of the features mentioned above. If you're interested, you can read the previous post on Game Design and Flow from Superhuman’s perspective.
‘Hey’ is a challenger to Superhuman that has a bunch of keyboard shortcuts and a workflow for Focus and Reply. It isn’t as snappy as Superhuman, but it is an option.
Slack is still the go-to tool for communication and collaboration. It offers keyboard shortcuts to search through chat, and start different conversations. But it is clunky.
It also doesn’t have workflows to process messages that require your attention in the same way that email allows you to do.
I don’t spend a lot of my time in Calendar apps since I don’t have a lot of ad hoc meetings. Most of the meetings are planned in advance and that works very well for me.
But I am sure in roles like Founders, VCs, Sales, or Customer Success, the calendar becomes the most important tool that you access.
Track is an app that I discovered that allows for scheduling meetings and sharing availability (like Calendly). From a speed perspective, it covers all the basics like Keyboard shortcuts, NLP, and workflows.
If you follow time blocking, like me, Track’s ‘Block Time’ feature makes it really easy to block time on your day for different tasks and activities. It’s also easy to retrospectively track where you actually spent your time.
I had a great onboarding call with Sudhama, the founder of Track. Here is what he had to say:
"Calendars today don't let you focus on your day in a way that they should and Speed is a function of Focus. Track is changing that"
In case you're interested in getting early access, you can visit Track’s website.
I showed the example earlier about Todoist having really good NLP for adding tasks. That keeps me from switching away from Todoist.
Additionally, I have supplemented Todoist with a chrome extension that adds more keyboard shortcuts and allows me to only use the keyboard to navigate and take action.
Superlist is another app that is focused on speed and is being made by the creators of Wunderlist. But, it's not publicly launched yet.
I talked about how I was spending a lot of my time in JIRA because it is so sluggish.
Linear is an app that aims to solve that problem. It has keyboard shortcuts, seamless transitions between pages.
JIRA, on the other hand, appears to reload the entire page when you do so.
Any business person who has used Excel for the majority of their work has had to learn the keyboard shortcuts. They would not shift away from Excel to Google Sheets because the keyboard shortcuts in Excel are better, and it would require a learning curve to re-learn it in Google Sheets.
I asked a friend in Private Equity, Barkha Agarwal, about the benefit of using keyboard shortcuts — is it the actual time saved, or is it a way to make work seamless?
It starts off as time saving but ends up reducing mental load.
If you're using a Mac, you should try out Alfred. It's a replacement for Spotlight where you can access local files, but you can also enable workflows that interact deep into apps.
Start a Toggl timer
Play a particular playlist on Spotify
Start a Zoom meeting using only the keyboard
Keyboard Maestro can do some of the similar things that Alfred does, just through keyboard shortcuts.
Command-E is an app that searches for files across local, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc. So if you have a lot of files in different places, this can be a good option for you. I didn’t get hooked onto this, perhaps because I don’t search a lot. It's just my messy Downloads folder is the main place where my files reside.
Raycast is another new app that combines Command-E functionality with Alfred’s.
I spoke with Aman Manik, a Product Manager, about his interest in using apps like Alfred and Raycast.
“You spend time learning these workflows that make you a nerd, nerd wants to stay put. It’s speed, but mostly workflow.”
It's like an investment that you want to extract the most out of.
If you're new to the space, first try to understand where you are spending most of your time. Then look at some of the solutions highlighted above to shave off some time from your work.
It has a learning curve, no doubt, but when you get used to it — you’ll get time savings and reduced mental load. And you wouldn’t want to go back.
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