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Elmo recruited for app that helps potty train kids

Sep. 5, 2012 at 10:11 AM ET

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Remember way back when you didn’t yet know how to use a toilet?

No?

It’s (probably) been a while since you mastered the art, but ask any new parent and they’ll tell you it can be arduous trying to teach their toddler bathroom skills. A few years ago, the Toy Lab team at Ideo began exploring ways to ease the experience, and found that guidance from older siblings was hugely beneficial. Leveraging a three-year relationship with the Sesame Workshop, Ideo developed a prototype where Elmo — who is often seen by tots as an older sibling figure — would offer encouragement over the phone. (As a 30 Rock aficionado, I have to point out that Pete Hornberger used this technique — iPhone, Elmo voice, potty training, and all — in an episode from 2007.)

The concept tested incredibly well, and it was apparent that extending the character’s furry reach would be beneficial in aiding other elements of growing up. Elmo Calls is the result; the interactive app allows kids to share moments with, and learn from, the iconic bright red resident of Sesame Street, who can be enlisted (by parents) to make contact for video and audio calls and voicemails that cover everything from "it’s time to exercise" to "it’s time for bed."

It’s the result of a synthesis of extensive "human-centered research" that forms the basis for all the firm’s endeavors. As it will be used by both adults and kids, the project had to reflect the various needs of both, and follows an iPhone-style interface that allows parents to unlock their menus with an easy swipe. After the Toy Lab drafted scripts for the different calls they were sent to the good folks at the Sesame Workshop, which has its own staff of developmental psychologists who aid in directing content to ensure it’s appropriate. From there, it was all Kevin Clash — the man behind Elmo — to voice the character and add his signature style. (Side note, if you’ve not yet watched Being Elmo, the documentary chronicling Clash’s progression from Muppet-loving teen to Muppeteer, it’s truly great and streaming on Netflix now.)

Elmo’s made 30 million calls since the app launched in December. But is it healthy to consider screens as an integral part of the parenting process? "It’s a big topic of discussion," Toy Lab leader Adam Skaates tells Co.Design. "These devices are so pervasive and are so important in these families lives." As such, his team works to specifically tailor the experience, ensuring that it is active, not passive. "We look at what we call ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward’ moments," Skaates explains. The latter offers shorter engagement periods with higher levels of interaction — a plus for everyone involved. "We’re trying to craft impactful moments to help and support parents, both socially and developmentally."

Keep an eye out for new apps featuring additional fuzzy friends from Sesame Street by the end of the year. In the meantime, you can buy Elmo Calls for $0.99 from the App Store here.

Jordan Kushins is a freelance writer based in beautiful San Francisco. She is an avid crafter, bicycle rider, and former associate editor at Dwell. Check out her work at jordankushins.com.

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