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August 31, 2017Martha Kang
For nearly 50 years, Sesame Street has brightened the world and brought critical early learning to children of all ages. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, has a mission: to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.
With more and more families using voice technology in the home, Sesame Workshop saw an opportunity to reach young fans of its iconic television program in a new and engaging way. To delight and educate kids, Sesame Workshop launched an Alexa skill that features Elmo, one of Sesame Street’s most famous characters. Now, with a parent’s consent, kids can say, “Alexa, Ask Sesame Street to call Elmo” and start engaging with the Muppet character via voice.
Betsy Loredo, executive editor and digital content director at Sesame Workshop, says the team wanted to build a skill based on Sesame Street, a friendly, welcoming, and safe place where kids can learn, play, and meet new friends. Everyone in the neighborhood—monsters included—helps each other, and that teaches kids how to respect others and overcome challenges, says Loredo.
For the Sesame Street skill, the Workshop selected Elmo for several reasons. Loredo says kids of all ages—especially preschoolers—respond to Elmo because he’s always curious, enthusiastic, and upbeat. Plus, Elmo has an unmistakable voice and an infectious laugh—both great ingredients for a memorable voice experience.
“There’s no question kids relate to Elmo because he sees the world as filled with boundless potential,” says Loredo. “We wanted that enthusiasm to come across in the skill.”
When a young user says, “Alexa, open Sesame Street,” Alexa asks whether he or she wants to call Elmo about letters or play hide-and-seek. When the child chooses to call Elmo about the letter of the day, Elmo answers and shares the reason he likes that letter as well as several words that start with that letter. This exercise helps develop the child’s early literacy skills, says Loredo.
The hide-and-seek guessing game taps into the child’s critical thinking. Alexa again calls Elmo, who is hiding at a secret location. When Elmo answers, he plays an audio clip that hints at the location and asks the child to guess where he is from two choices. For example, Elmo might play the sound of seagulls and crashing waves, then ask the user to select between a firehouse and a beach.
“We chose sounds that would make kids laugh,” says Loredo. “We went for boings, and moos, and oinks, and lots of silly horn honking.”
The game teaches careful listening with the kind support and encouraging words parents have come to expect from Sesame Street characters like Elmo.
Glace Chou, Sesame Workshop’s senior producer in digital production, says part of the fun is coming up with new ways to present an everyday play pattern. The letter of the day, for example, is a new twist on a years-old smartphone app named “Elmo Calls.”
“When we approach a new technology, we look at things kids already know and are comfortable with,” says Chou. “Hide-and-seek is not a new idea, but focusing on the audio aspect makes it both familiar and fresh, engaging kids in a whole new way.”
In order to design a kid-friendly skill, the team had to keep the engagement simple and straightforward. The sounds had to be very distinct and recognizable. The choices couldn’t be confusing or too similar, or the child might get frustrated.
“We’re talking about preschoolers here,” says Chou. “If they get bored or hit a hurdle they just can't overcome, they will walk away.”
While the Workshop is a master at creative children’s content and education, developing for voice was a new frontier. The Workshop collaborated with RAIN, a digital consultancy, to help build the Sesame Street skill.
Matt Parkin, UX designer and strategist at RAIN, says the Workshop had existing audio recordings of Elmo for the letter of the day feature, but needed to write scripts and collect soundscapes for the hide-and-seek game. RAIN created a robust state diagram of every use case, identified the audio gaps to be filled, then wrote the initial scripts. Then the Sesame Street team refined the scripts to capture Elmo’s voice and personality before heading into the recording booth with Elmo.
The team at RAIN wanted to create interactions that would surprise and engage kids every time they use the skill. So the agency broke down the recordings of Elmo into small, independent snippets which could then be rearranged create thousands of new sentences and interactions. Then the team built a tool that randomly pulls together snippets from different files into a single audio file. This shuffler enables the skill to serve up a wide variety of responses and continue delighting kids, says Steve Hansen, CTO of RAIN.
For hide-and-seek, RAIN also created algorithms to ensure the skill doesn’t offer two possible right answers for a given sound during a single interaction. For example, “Is Elmo at the dog park or the pet parade?" might confuse or frustrate a young child hearing a clip of dogs barking.
“To make the skill kid-friendly, we had to include the appropriate amount of repetition, grammar, and language for the target age while still making each interaction a surprise,” says Parkin.
“Some of this wasn’t really a departure at all. Things like conversational markers and pauses—it really was the same for kids as adults. The same best practices apply,” says Hansen.
Parents trust Sesame Workshop to produce fun, educational, and safe content for their kids, and the Sesame Street skill for Alexa is no exception. Now that developers can flag their skills as child-directed, parents can rest assured their kids will not engage with child-directed skills until the parents have given consent.
Sesame’s core production team collaborated with RAIN to design, build, and test the Alexa skill. Both the user testing as well as internal testing with family members turned up some surprising insights into how quickly kids embrace voice experiences.
“It was surprising to me how kids didn’t react to Alexa with a technology bias. They responded to Alexa as if they were talking to another person. It was very natural for them,” Hansen says.
The Sesame Street skill’s easy accessibility supports the Workshop’s mission to use emerging technology to deliver quality educational content that helps all kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.
“Voice is becoming ubiquitous. For kids to thrive in a culture that values technology, we have to present them with safe, age-appropriate experiences on new platforms as they learn. And we’re excited to do just that with the Sesame Street skill for Alexa,” says Loredo.
You can now publish fun and educational skills for kids under the age of 13. Check out our tips on building skills for kids, then start building your own.