The Sesame Street Guide to Developing Touch-Based Apps for Kids: Part 1

Sesame Street, the iconic show that has made learning fun for millions of children around the world for decades, isn’t just about puppets, ABC’s, and the number of the day. The company also has a dedicated app development and technology arm that is behind some pretty amazing games and apps that reinforce the learning concepts that Sesame Street is known for. To that end, Sesame Street put together a comprehensive white paper on best practices for designing a touch-based experience geared towards preschoolers, Sesame Street’s primary audience. This research is the product of over forty years of children’s media testing, twenty years of digital platform testing, and includes results from more than fifty touch screen/touch-based app studies. In this first of two articles, we’re going to take a detailed look at what Sesame Street suggests for touch-based applications, applying this knowledge to what we already know about designing for touch, especially with Ultrabooks™ and Windows* 8.

Primary objectives when designing touch-based apps for children

Sesame Street is one of the most successful companies geared towards young children in the world, and that’s because they always keep their primary objective firmly in mind: to make learning fun. In order to do this with their touch-based apps and games, Sesame Street has lined up a few main goals.

  • Target audience: Always consider who your target audience is, making sure that the app is developmentally appropriate.
  • Hand-on: A touch-based app inherently means that it’s completely hands-on, which is something that kids are especially drawn to. A touch-based app experience should be charming , whimsical, and should inspire further discovery within the app.
  • Watch the extras: Don’t get carried away by too many bells and whistles that will take away from the overall app experience. Make sure that the digital experience is structured, with a clear process in place, and that there are controls for making the app experience as complete as possible.
  • Fun: Education doesn’t have to be devoid of fun, and vice versa. Sesame Street is known for making learning fun, and that extends over the entire digital cross-platform spectrum.
  • Keep moving: Kids are always growing, and technology has to keep up with them. Always keep learning from your users, adapting to new technology and ways of doing things.

Use the familiar to create new experiences

Elmo, Big Bird, and Grover are all familiar, beloved faces to many children. These characters are known entities that can make an unknown experience – like a new touch-based app – seem less intimidating simply by showing up. This principle applies to any new app developed for children; basically, using a familiar face/character/storyline to make a new experience more comfortable.

In order to do this, developers should use what is already familiar to the user throughout the app in order to make the experience as low on the learning curve as possible, especially when introducing new technology. Building on the relationships that a developer might already have via a partner website or other apps in a branded family will create a feeling of familiarity; this also fosters a bigger picture of engagement and makes the user feel more connected to the app as a whole.

Interactive design

Sesame Street developers suggest that touch-based apps for kids should always begin with some kind of a greeting that makes the user feel comfortable. Instructions should be clear, primarily stating the main objective of the app and how the user can use the app to obtain that objective.

When the app shifts into an inactive phase, a “time out” feature should be incorporated that suggests something that the user can do next. Many web-based apps do this quite well, for example, Pandora, a streaming music application, asks if you are “still listening”.

Instant feedback should be given to the user if an invalid choice is made, whether within the app or in an initial registration phase. Sesame Street offers level by level suggestions for this situation:

First Wrong Answer: Identify a wrong choice and offer encouragement. Example: “That’s not it. Try again!”

Second Wrong Answer: Identify a wrong choice, restate the objective, offer a hint, and provide encouragement.  Example: “That’s not right. You need to find a triangle. It has 3 sides and 3 angles! Try again!”

 Third Wrong Answer: Identify a wrong choice, restate the objective, offer a hint, and highlight the correct answer. Example: “That’s not right. You need to find a triangle. It has 3 sides and 3 angles! <Triangle highlights> Tap on the triangle!” This should be repeated until the correct answer is selected. In some cases, we may suggest moving a child forward if he/she is struggling for a determined period of time.”

Correct answers need instant feedback/reward as well, delivered in more than one way. Something that doesn’t’ necessarily require a right or wrong answer, but still requires input, should still generate feedback  of some kind, merely so the user knows that the app is still interacting with them. This is especially useful in touch-based apps, as detailed by Luke Wroblewski:

“With a touch-optimized Ultrabook, users have many choices when it comes to input controls: the mouse, the keyboard, a touchpad, up and down keys, and touch. A well-designed app will allow the users to decide whatever kind of input is most convenient for them. Support each option equally well in your application and users will naturally gravitate to whatever works best for their unique needs.” - source

Since Sesame Street caters to kids who mostly haven’t learned how to read yet, text-based menus aren’t necessarily that helpful. Lengthy instructions are anathema to most users; most people don’t want a wall of text they have to decipher in order to get an app going, they just want to jump right in and start using the app, figuring it out as they go along. Studies have shown that while most  users don’t want lots of instructions or welcome trailers at the beginning of an app experience, they do want them somewhere they can access them if they do want them. Sesame Street suggests making a detailed FAQ and How To section for parents and caregivers somewhere in the app that is easily accessible.

Kids and touch: the most common gestures

Studies – including one done here at Intel titled "The Human Touch: Building Ultrabook™ Applications in a Post-PC Age" – indicate that there are several basic touch-based gestures that most people utilize:

  • Tap and double tap: briefly touch the surface with a fingertip/rapidly touch surface twice with a fingertip. Both of these can be accomplished using multi-fingers, but that’s a bit more difficult to master. The simpler the gesture to do, the easier for the end user.
  • Swipe/drag: move a fingertip over the surface area without losing physical contact. This is the most versatile of touch gestures right after tap. A multi-finger action with swipe is fairly easy to implement.
  • Flick: quickly brush the surface with a fingertip (this one can actually get content moving around the screen faster than the mouse or keyboard can). One of the most versatile touch gestures.
  • Pinch: touch the surface with two fingers and bring something closer
  • Spread: touch the surface with two fingers and move them apart
  • Press: touch the surface for an extended period of time
  • Press and tap: press the surface with one finger and briefly touch the surface with another finger (somewhat tricky to accomplish)..
  • Rotate: touch the surface with two fingers and move them in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction


For children, Sesame Street found that tapping is the most foundational of all possible touch gestures for kids. Other input gestures each come with their own pros and cons:


  • Draw by moving fingers on the screen: It’s common in drawing applications to use our fingers to trace and draw something on the screen, but for kids, lifting the finger (or not lifting the finger) can be problematic. Developers are urged to support partial completion.
  • Swiping: Swipe is definitely one of the more intuitive gestures, but kids (and adults!)need to be prompted where a swipe might work. Most situations will work well with dual functionality; i.e., you can swipe this page, or you can click an arrow. Watch where possible operating system functionality is so you’re not putting hot spots where an app menu might accidentally be pulled up.
  • Dragging: Kids can usually manage to touch something and drag it to a new location, but it’s difficult to do. Apps should meet users halfway, supporting partial completion.
  • Sliders: Sesame Street found that sliders present some issues, but they can still be used. They suggest that “if a game requires a child to use a slider, it must be very explicit about how to do so (e.g., VO, strong visual indication of end point, a large hotspot, supportive/explicit highlighting).”


This is part one. In our next article, we’ll take a look at what Sesame Street suggests for visual design, cross platform screen design, and audio implementation for touch-based apps for kids.  Have you designed any apps specifically for children? What are your experiences? Share with us in the comments section.



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