Why We Started Onward


For the past ten years, I’ve been the cheerleader-in-chief for behavioral design and engaging technology.

My job was to have users engage more with products, and I was good at it. I made dozens of applications and helped develop platforms with millions of users through my consulting practice with Fortune 500s, non-profits and governments. But then I started feeling the negative effects all around me. Dinner parties, nightclubs – even live performances – were filled with people I loved staring at their phones instead of talking to each other. Friends and family members (both adults and children) seemed to be lost in their devices, newfound addicts to games, gambling, shopping, social media and the like. While much of my work has had a positive effect on the world, I realized that – taken to its logical end – we could do irreversible harm to individuals and society. So, I took a step back. I reevaluated my life’s work and what I need to do now.

The Gamification Movement

As the face of the gamification movement, I’ve argued that business and government needed to wake up to the reality that many of their products, services, and workplaces lack the challenge, achievement, and reward that are increasingly at the heart of modern technology.

At the same time, I’ve had many family and friends who have battled addictions of every kind — and much more who still suffer. Over time, it’s become obvious to me that these two ideas are deeply connected. The interplay between addictive technology and people’s increasing sense of loneliness, isolation, boredom, and anxiety was producing an unsustainable powder keg of compulsive overuse that increasingly harms. Tech has always been used to fuel addiction, but with the growth of smartphones, the problem appears to have grown exponentially.

And that is precisely why I know – better than most – why we need a solution to help people push back against this onslaught of addictive technology.

A Meeting of Minds

So when I got together with my friends Adam Singer and Geoff Lewis to talk about how to change the landscape of addiction, it became apparent that we had a shared experience of living in a world of destructive-compulsive people and a strong desire to change the game.

It also became apparent that existing treatment modalities are failing us: rehabs and hospitals are outrageously expensive, outdated and unaccountable. 12 step and religious-based programs teach abstinence coupled with spirituality that can be a deterrent. Programs are woefully short on efficacy data, and no provider is willing to take responsibility for their customers’ well-being. Moreover, behavioral overuse (screen time/social media, gambling, porn, shopping, video games, etc.) as a category was shockingly underrepresented in treatment options.

So we gathered amazing clinical advisors from UCLA, Columbia and Stanford Medicine and combined their intelligence with our collective experience designing and building technology. Together we developed a behavior change approach that would leverage advanced technologies — including AI and data science — to help people change their behavior, reduce their overuse, and do it all for a fraction of the cost of existing solutions.

The Big Picture

Onward is designed to help you set and keep the limits you seek. It also teaches you valuable skills you can learn to reduce your desire to overuse. We developed an artificially intelligent coach named ‘O’ to help you to learn your triggers, change how you feel, enforce your limits and get you to step away from your screen. The chatbot makes use of our proprietary behavior change technology to learn your habits and needs and to anticipate those before you even know them yourself.

We’ve conducted two studies on Onward’s efficacy so far. For social media overusers, we were able to help people shed an estimated 100 hrs/year worth of screen time. In a study we conducted on porn overusers, nearly 90% of active participants reduced their usage (and 50% stopped entirely). These unprecedented results have helped us refine and dramatically improve the solution.

Onward is the product of a dedicated team — based in Los Angeles — who have made it their mission to leverage the power of science to help all of us achieve Tech-Life Balance, and to end addiction one issue at a time.

I hope you’ll join Onward today and let us help you change your life for the better. It’s my mission, and I know we’ll all be better for it.

Gabe Zichermann
Gabe is a serial entrepreneur, author, and speaker with a family history of addiction and a decade of experience building systems for behavior change. His vision is to foster a world where balanced relationships between “real life" and technology make everyone healthier, happier and more truly connected.