Sep 29, 2023
Let the rhythm of the music guide your movements. Embrace the breathtaking mountain landscape in which this adventure unfolds. Swing your baton, striking the approaching orb from the right. Repeat the action as another approaches from the left. Squat down as a sequence of luminous triangles advances towards you.
Embracing the unique interactions that VR platforms can offer has long been the hallmark of countless video games. However, Supernatural is not just another virtual reality (VR) video game; it’s a fitness app from Meta Quest that offers a variety of workout experiences. This app provides a fun and inclusive way to exercise in the comfort of your own home, guided by a cheery and supportive cast of coaches.
The loyal Supernatural community is not the only one recognizing its strengths. Devoted Supernatural enthusiasts have experienced its transformative impact on their lives. Supernatural stands out as a great example of well-executed ecosystem design. Since its launch in early 2020, the app has received rave reviews from the likes of the Washington Post, has been lauded by Wired for its accessibility and recently won a Webby Award in the People’s Choice category. The platform has captured the fitness world's attention for its truly innovative, enjoyable, and inclusive approach to home-based exercise.
What sets Supernatural apart from other VR fitness products?
Even if you’re developing products and services unrelated to fitness, studying Supernatural as a designer is immensely valuable. It exemplifies how to create a holistic, immersive experience that has not only captivated users but also inspired them to form their own peer-led community. The level of engagement Supernatural achieves is something most brands can only dream about.
To gain deeper insights into the design philosophy underpinning Supernatural’s exceptional success, we spoke to Cliff Warren, Supernatural's Product Design Director. Cliff leads a dedicated product design team responsible for shaping every facet of the Supernatural experience. His enthusiasm for the app mirrors that of its most devoted users. With a six-year stint at Oculus, Cliff was drawn to contributing to VR in a way that fosters community and enriches people's lives.
Supernatural's design-driven approach finds its origins in its leadership, particularly Chris Milk. Chris, a respected technologist and immersive artist, co-founded Within (Virtual Reality), which Meta acquired in 2021. He serves as Supernatural's Chief Creative Officer & CEO, focusing on harnessing VR's potential as an "empathy machine." This concept revolves around VR's unique ability to establish emotional connections between users, fostering connections within a given environment or with virtual characters.
In the realm of fitness, where the goal of getting in shape seems universally attainable, Supernatural recognizes the diverse abilities of its users. Traditional fitness apps and gyms often overlook this diversity, excluding individuals with injuries or varying physical capabilities from conventional fitness routines. Supernatural's response has been to infuse empathy into every aspect of the user experience. This includes offering a wide range of movements, integrating music, and providing supportive coaches who guide users through virtual workouts at home. Embracing empathy as a core principle has been crucial as the Supernatural team has expanded from around 70 to over 150 members, collaborating across four distinct product groups.
Cliff emphasized, "The founders remain deeply involved, maintaining a clear vision of the experience they aim to provide. We are committed to thoughtfully 'templatizing' Chris's vision and perspective," ensuring that empathy continues to shape the heart of Supernatural's design philosophy.
Sustaining a design-centric approach as the user base expands
Supernatural's journey began as a niche app with approximately 10,000 users, but it has since evolved into a thriving community of more than 80,000 active users. With growth comes the challenge of preserving a design-centric ethos that honors the user community while accommodating the demands of a larger team and additional features.
Cliff emphasized the significance of recruiting individuals with the right mindset and aptitude. Prospective team members are expected to have experimented with VR and similar emerging technologies and be willing to familiarize themselves with unfamiliar tools.
"It can be challenging to persuade someone to acquire new skills," he acknowledged. "However, it's crucial for us that team members embrace the necessary skills for innovation. We dedicate substantial time to experimentation and hands-on engagement with the technology itself."
According to Cliff, immersing oneself in the technology helps identify the most suitable use cases, drawing parallels with the early days of multi-touch technology, which gained significant traction when applied to the first smartphones.
"We are often advised to 'begin with the problem, then find the technology' instead of 'starting with technology.' However, innovation doesn't always follow this linear path," he explained.
Fostering organic user engagement with accessibility & inclusion
It might appear inevitable for an app owned by Meta to see users congregating on Facebook. However, the development of this online community caught the development team off guard. The Supernatural Facebook group evolved into much more than just a platform for sharing exercise tips; it has become a treasure trove of stories from individuals who never imagined they could achieve fitness goals through VR. Cliff highlighted the team's focus on providing genuine value. Supernatural's roster of coaches frequently engage within the group, addressing common queries and delivering the kind of encouragement that enhances an already positive experience. Cliff emphasized, "This isn't about competition, as with other fitness apps or experiences. Our coaches foster collaboration. People seek a particular vibe from their coaches, and that same spirit permeates the community."
In essence, Supernatural's approach has built a self-propelling ecosystem. The development team focuses on designing exceptional experiences for Supernatural users, who, in turn, support the community of users. Coaches play a pivotal role in nurturing this engagement. As a result, many Supernatural users are not solely achieving physical fitness; they are enhancing their overall health and wellness by participating in a supportive community. In an era where numerous companies strive to develop innovative products and services, Supernatural serves as a compelling case study, demonstrating the potential of ecosystem design. It reinforces the notion that ecosystem design works—it's not supernatural; it's entirely achievable.
Sep 29, 2023