Six things we’ve learned in Woebot’s 1st year

Our little Woebot is one year old today! On June 6th 2017, we launched with a simple idea: radically accessible mental health. Now we are used by hundreds of thousands of people from 16 to 90 years old, in more than 130 countries. We have ignited significant discussion around human-robot interaction and breaking down barriers to mental health with over 600 pieces of press coverage across the globe. Here’s some things we’ve learned along the way.

1. Everybody has mental health.
Woebot is one small step towards frank discussion around mental health. We all have mental health and we all need to take care of it. We are proud that Woebot has had much broader appeal than we anticipated— currently, Woebot is being used equally across genders and has a surprising appeal across all age groups.

2. Chatbots are not going to replace therapy, but they will exist side-by-side.
The problem with introducing a new service is that people seek to anchor the concept to what they believe is the closest approximation. This is why descriptions like “We’re Uber for X” abound among startups. Woebot is often described as “AI therapy” but this comparison misses the point entirely: the structure of Woebot is completely different—part online learning exercise, part game, and part self-help book— unlike therapy, there is actually very little open ended conversation, and unlike therapy, you can reach out to Woebot for some perspective whenever you like.

3. Woebot is not therapy, but good mental health practice.
Woebot can be there for you around the clock, and in a way that is integrated into your everyday life. In this way he helps you practice good thinking hygiene in the very moments you are likely to need to most. Why is this important? Because even in traditionally delivered CBT, practice between sessions strongly predicts positive outcomes. Woebot is the proverbial tennis ball machine, shooting tennis balls at you to help you practice your swing, but it’s never going to replace the experience of playing the game. Woebot exists alongside more traditional services as part of a broader health ecosystem. At the end of the day, more evidence-based tools is good news for people, as lives become more complex, time becomes more scarce, and access becomes more challenging.

4. Chatbots can reduce the burden of mental illness on a global scale.
Woebot spoke to more people on his first day of launch than a mental health professional could see in a lifetime. In just a few weeks after launch, Woebot was being used by people in more than 130 countries around the world. In just 7 days past launch, Weobot’s iOS app was being used by people in 116 countries. Scale alone doesn’t have impact, but scale combined with demonstrable symptom reduction is a genuine contribution to lowering the burden of illness. It is well understood that we’re going to need to leverage tech in order to meet the increasing demand for services. Even small effect sizes at scale can have significant impact at scale.

Figure 1: Woebot’s Global Reach 7 days after iOS app launch

5. Chatbots are not about AI, they’re about a more human interface.
People know how to converse, and that’s why a well designed chatbot feels very simple to use. In a noisy world, conversation can feel like a personal and simple refuge from the bells and whistles that vie for our attention. Most of Woebot’s conversation is scripted, it is designed to ask you the right questions so you can figure out the answers on your own. The “intelligence” that Woebot has is baked into the conversational scripts that are written by our expert clinicians together with a few well-placed algorithms that work to appropriately classify what people are saying. When the interface is just a conversation, there is nothing about this tech to learn. My mother who is 86-years old has never used a mouse, but she can comfortably text on her phone. This is why this technology works: it is about simplification. Turns out that when we’re upset, we talk about our problems, we don’t swipe or click through them.

6. Companies can and should be built with compassion as their engine, not growth.
We launched Woebot on Facebook at the start of what became the most turbulent time in Facebook’s history. We launched there because our users liked it, and it’s in concert with our values, it is important to meet people where they’re at. We believe in informed consent and transparency, we have published our values and beliefs since the first day Woebot was launched and we think communicating these is more important than ever. In a world where our data can be used to sell us more stuff and our emotions are being weaponized to win elections and polarize our communities, we believe people deserve better, and should demand better. We want Woebot to be better every day.