Prototyping Elmo’s Monster Maker App

This inspiration is an excerpt from David and Tom Kelley’s book Creative Confidence. The post is about how the IDEO team generated a quick, low production prototype for Sesame Street to pitch the idea for the Elmo Monster Maker App. Rapid prototyping is a subject that we cover in our From Ideas to Action course.


People let potentially great ideas slip away every day. Sometimes we assume that acting on them would take too long or require too much effort. Other times we fail to convince our boss or key stakeholders with words alone. Experiments are one way to lower the bar in trying out an idea. And the faster the experiment, the more likely you are to try.

Just how quick is a rapid prototype? Sometimes time is very short, and every minute counts. Not long ago, toy inventor Adam Skaates and gaming expert Coe Leta Stafford were halfway through a project with Sesame Workshop to develop Elmo’s Monster Maker—an iPhone app that leads young children through the process of designing their own monster friend. They had an idea for a new dance feature in which kids could guide Elmo through different dance moves in sync with a simple music track. The two were enthusiastic about the idea, but the rest of the team was dubious. So the feature was in danger of being cut from the final product.


“Experiments are one way to lower the bar in trying out an idea. And the faster the experiment, the more likely you are to try.”


An hour before a conference call with Sesame Workshop, Adam and Coe Leta decided to prototype the feature with whatever materials they had on hand. Working quickly, Adam printed out an oversized image of his iPhone using a giant plotter, mounted it on a sheet of foam core, and cut out a rectangular window where the screen would be. He then stood behind the “phone” so his body appeared in the “screen.” Meanwhile, Coe Leta set up her laptop in front of the crude prototype, pointing the webcam toward Adam. Putting the camera into record mode, she then moved her hand into the scene, using her finger to simulate how children would interact with the app—like touching Adam on the nose to make him start dancing. From the point of view of the webcam, the iPhone looked almost real, and Adam danced and reacted as he envisioned Elmo would. A single take, a quick edit, and the video clip was sent off to the Sesame Workshop team members just a few minutes before their meeting.

Coe and Adam's Quick Prototype Eventually Led to the Elmo Monster Maker App

Adam and Coe Leta’s quick video was fun and endearing. It was also much more persuasive than just talking about their ideas would have been. They subscribe to Boyle’s Law (named after one of IDEO’s master prototypers, Dennis Boyle): never go to a meeting without a prototype. Today, if you download Elmo’s Monster Maker from the iTunes store, you’ll see the feature they prototyped in an hour that morning. By acting quickly, they won the team over with their creative idea.


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