How Sesame Street Revolutionized Product Development

In 2009, Sesame Street aired a short segment that starred buttoned-up muppets in grey suits and spread collars.

The first words kids hear in this piece are from the group’s fearless leader:

“So where are we with the Happy Honey Bear account?”

Over the next couple minutes, the muppets review some designs, trying to find the one that will make them feel happy about honey. One illustration enrages them, while another reduces them to tears. Finally, the last image elicits broad smiles.

This scene is gold for educational programming. Young children learning how to express their emotions see muppets getting angry, sad, and happy just like they do. The vocabulary for these expressions gets repeated over and over so that it sticks.

“Mad, mad mad … Sad, sad, sad … Happy, happy, happy!!”

While this educational framing is definitely important, it isn’t the true genius of Sesame Street.

The real genius is that the producers wrote the scene for two audiences — not just kids, but also their parents. The scene described above is a parody of the popular Matthew Weiner drama Mad Men:

Yes, this entire sketch aims to entertain and educate its primary audience (young children). But it also keeps its secondary audience (parents and caregivers) firmly in mind. All of the small details, from the dramatic intro music to the snappy dialogue (“Good work, sycophants!”), are winks at the adults watching Sesame Street with their children.

Executive producer Carol-Lyn Parente described this phenomenon when she spoke with Fast Company:

“The show has to be furry, heartfelt, educational, funny, and clever for both adults and children.”

This practice stems from the important insight that the needs of all key decision makers need to be considered during product development.

So while a show for young children absolutely needs to be furry and funny for the kids, it also needs to consider the parent looking after them and possibly recommending things to other parents. The show’s head writer Joseph Mazzarino put it this way:

“As a parent myself, I can say that if you’re sitting down for a lot of kids’ shows, you kind of tune it out a little bit or get bored, but if all of a sudden there’s a Sookie muppet up there [from True Blood], you might think, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. That looks just like her.'”

Over the 40+ years that the show’s been on air, the slapstick humor that kids love has been sprinkled with a healthy dose of subtle jokes and references that the adults in the room would also enjoy. The result is a show widely held as the gold standard for children’s television.

Two-Level Product Development

This type of development is very similar to the type seen across many successful products in the tech world. Companies like Mixpanel and RelateIQ have baked things into their platforms that serve the needs of not just the daily users, but also the people that they report to and work with.

Source: Illuminant Partners

For example, Balsamiq, a mockup tool, serves the purposes of two “users.” The primary user is the designer, who needs to build quick prototypes. The secondary user is the executive, the potential customer, or the product team that will approve or nix potential designs. Balsamiq’s product allows the designer to convey ideas very quickly and clearly to other stakeholders. Without investing weeks upon weeks of time into a version one that might get shot down immediately.

It appears that developing for the needs of multiple decision makers is a key component of the most popular tech products used today (not just Balsamiq).

A few months ago, we dug through StackShare’s publicly-available data to see which tools were being used most frequently, and why. From the 9,000+ votes filed for over 30 of the most widely-used products, we noticed specific types of feedback appearing over and over again.

Almost 55% of all reasons why people used a particular tool were because of either its 1) simple, intuitive design; 2) plentiful free allowances; or 3) third-party integrations:

stackshare-graph In terms of two-level development, these top three reasons make a lot of sense.

First, the primary user often requires an intuitive, well-designed tool — people are busy and need to be able to understand how to use it quickly, right out of the box.

Second, most startups and small businesses are cash-strapped and can’t liberally throw money at new tools, so free allowances provide the runway to try things out without upsetting the COO (a potential secondary “user”).

Third, a product that handles third-party integrations well means that a primary user can seamlessly integrate the product into the suite of tools being used by everyone else in the company.

This all culminates in a happy harmony between the needs of the primary and secondary users.

The Effects of Considering Key Decision Makers

The result of building in close alignment with the needs of vital stakeholders (and not just the primary user) is a product that spreads like wildfire through word-of-mouth — via mailing lists, Quora reviews, water cooler talk, and everything else in between.

In the case of Sesame Street, this meant being called by TIME Magazine “not only the best children’s show in history, but also one of the best parent’s shows ever.” This accolade came after the show’s very first year on air.

But there’s another great side effect to this two-level style of product development. Sesame Street’s Mazzarino had a great script pitched to him a couple years ago. It was a parody of those goofy Old Spice “The Man That You Could Smell Like” commercials. Mazzarino knew the script didn’t fit into the schema of the actual show, but thought it was great and that it would be a hit.

“So I started calling around and interactive scraped together some money somehow with the help of PR, and they shot it and put it up and that was maybe three weeks altogether. That was way different than anything we’ve ever done … I said that maybe it could be a promo. […] And that’s what happened, it became a thing to try to drive people to the show.”

The “Smell Like a Monster” clip got posted up on YouTube and proceeded to go viral. It worked because, after doing two-level product development for years, the Sesame Street team had built a keen eye for what works and what doesn’t. This freed them to take risks that other shows and products probably can’t take.



Wearer of many hats at SocialRank. @AmmarM08

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