Will UX Teach Us How to
Get to Sesame Street?

Investing in Child-Centred Research to
Develop Sesame Street’s Digital Design

Written by Becca Seibert Nast, Emily Reardon, and Kim Foulds, Ph.D. of Sesame Workshop

Since its beginning in 1969, Sesame Street has centred preschool children’s participation in the content creation process, regarding young children as meaningful and active stakeholders. We place preschoolers at the heart of the experience through child-centred formative research, empowering children to lead the evolution of content designed to support their holistic development. Implementing this iterative process of content creation also serves a critical business need: investing in child-centred formative research during the design and development stage generates valuable findings and recommendations prior to product finalisation and distribution.

Interactive digital experiences foster comprehension and cognitive development by allowing for exploration beyond everyday lives, encouraging children to be active participants in the learning process, and providing detailed, appropriate feedback about the children’s actions. While UX research has obvious benefits, it might be challenging to see how young children can meaningfully contribute to it. At Sesame Workshop, the customary inclusion of preschoolers and their caregivers in formative research is a testament to how complex, capable, and perceptive we know children to be. From this place of respect, our work with children leads to valuable insights.

We begin with research questions and a structured practice. UX research methods, like observing children’s interactions with early prototypes, provides actionable insight into how children use and understand a variety of new and curricular digital experiences. Working with preschoolers, however, presents unique challenges specific to both curriculum and usability; they are in a period of rapid physical, cognitive, motor, and social development, meaning that “early childhood” encompasses a wide range of knowledge and skills. Their developing language skills often prevent them from articulating what does or does not work about a game, what they do or do not like, or what and how they are learning.

From an understanding of child development and educational technology, our teams interpret children's behaviour into digital experiences that fit into our audience's needs. The findings from our child-centred research, like prior knowledge children bring to a digital experience or how cognitive abilities may limit their ability to engage, lead directly to actionable recommendations that help guide design to better suit the child user. Our approach is rooted in constructivist learning theory, the concept that children “construct” their own knowledge by actively exploring the world around them in structured and systematic ways, and content that is informed by research with children and empowers them with choice and control fosters comprehension and cognitive development through that exploration.

We will explore three examples: Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen app, Give Me a Clue voice recognition prototype, and Making It Work digital game to discuss how we developed our questions, what we learned, and how that shaped design.


For our Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen app, the design team wanted to combine a familiar literacy curriculum with a new kind of play combining physical manipulatives placed on a tablet screen and detected by an app. Given this intersection of a familiar premise with a new type of play, the research question was “How might children combine classic, physical play patterns with digital play?” When children were provided with physical manipulatives (small plastic vowels) during playtesting, researchers found that combining classic toys with digital play required children to learn some new rules to engage effectively. The voiceover in the app instructed children to “place” the toys, and, as they might “place” a puzzle piece, children would put the letter on the screen and not remove it, causing letter pieces to pile up on the screen or triggering unanticipated responses from the game. Children were interpreting the word “place” as they would with puzzle pieces or blocks— place it and leave it there! Researchers tried prompting children with the word “stamp,” which began to encourage children to place and lift the toy pieces on the screen to make the appropriate letter appear on the screen and continue with the game.

These findings led to changes in the voiceover instructions that remind children to use only one toy at a time or to stamp the toy on the screen. Researchers also found that children would sometimes place the letter toys upside down. The letter recognition technology (unique magnets on the back of each letter) that allowed the app to recognize the letter toys did not allow it to recognize the orientation of the letter. Sometimes, research recommendations are not feasible due to time, budget, and/ or scope constraints, but those findings can inform future work.


Other times, designers create a brand-new technology. Our digital team worked with a well-known industry leader in voice recognition to develop a technology specifically for children. In Give Me a Clue, Cookie Monster and the child player are partners in a pyramid- style game show and must speak clues to each other and guess a secret word. In this case, our research questions were, “How might children use voice recognition? In what ways would the software need to be adapted for children’s speech patterns, expressive language, and engagement?” Voice recognition software is not optimized for children, so we planned Give Me a Clue with a deep yet highly stable and structured curriculum—animals and their attributes—to limit the variability in child responses. Before any technology was put in front of children, researchers did a form of paper testing where they played guessing games with children. By showing pictures of animals and having children describe the image to the researcher, the testing mimicked how the Give Me a Clue gameshow would work and provided information about the kinds of language and grammar. when playing this game. The ways children described animals and the words they used to guess animals when given clues (e.g., cat, kitty, kitten, kitty-cat), were then used to build technology that could recognize the specific language and grammar of young children.


When creating content to fit the needs of targeted populations within the preschool audience, research questions must be further specialized. Making It Work, a digital game within our See Amazing In All Children autism initiative, is focused on utilizing calm-down strategies in the face of disappointment, surprises, or change. In this case, our research questions focused on the developmental needs and user experiences of children with autism: “How do children with autism interact with digital experiences for play and learning? What can we best use technology to support autistic children learning this curriculum?” When we cannot work with children directly, parents, teachers, and other caregivers provide helpful insights into how young children play and learn. In early 2021, logistics of the pandemic made it impossible to engage directly with preschoolers. Instead, we conducted focus groups with teachers of preschoolers with autism, who told the moderator how their students use and love technology, are familiar with touch gestures on tablets and phones, and have a wide spectrum of support needs. Teachers’ knowledge of child development and their experiences of autistic students created a valuable perspective.

From these focus groups, researchers recommended changes to simplify instructions and visuals, vary curricular moments, and modify calm-down strategies to be more like those that children already know. While some teacher recommendations were beyond the scope of the project, most could be directly incorporated into the art, script, and functionality of the game to support the varied ways children with autism learn from and interact with digital media.


In designing and playtesting digital experiences, conducting research with preschoolers offers important value to design processes and becomes a critical business practice. The value of child-centred research lies in the improvements that can be implemented after playtesting content directly with preschoolers and, sometimes, the adults in their lives. The examples here highlight the critical insights even very young children can provide during product development for digital experiences and the importance of investing in that testing during product conceptualization and prototyping. Had the team not invested in child-centred research, Sesame might have produced and disseminated preschool content that children struggled to navigate—either because of confusing or unclear language or challenging interfaces—and, thus, would be unlikely to use. When children are better able and more likely to use our content, we are better able to meaningfully contribute to their growth and development. Through collaborative research and design relationships, organisations can develop meaningful, positive digital experiences for children by optimising technology and curricula specifically to children’s needs.

From these focus groups, researchers recommended changes to simplify instructions and visuals, vary curricular moments, and modify calm-down strategies to be more like those that children already know. While some teacher recommendations were beyond the scope of the project, most could be directly incorporated into the art, script, and functionality of the game to support the varied ways children with autism learn from and interact with digital media.