Curious World: A kids’ subscription app



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt wanted to build a subscription-based product for its nascent early-learning brand Curious World. The executive team worked to retrofit a product idea to a fixed business model. Nothing fit the glass slipper.

What I did


I jumped in as strategist to introduce design-thinking tactics. On day one, I mapped out Houghton Mifflin’s early learning ecosystem to help the team ask the right questions. It was evident that some ideas cannibalized existing products. If there was friction, we swept those ideas off the table. Next, I looked for early-learning products that could inform a Curious World strategy. REAL was a researched and popular school product. It provided evaluation tools to measure growth milestones. Bam!


I spent the next few days conducting an external early learning competitive audit. The most trusted children’s brands already hosted sites about milestones. (No reason to play catch-up there.) What was missing? There were no products that made those milestones (or skills) measurable in daily context. On a dime, Curious World could be an app that let parents assess on the go. Can your child balance on one foot for 9 seconds? Tap yes to track against health and well-being. Can your child identify stop signs on the way to school? Tap yes to track against family and community.

Based on REAL, I proposed hundreds of tiny ‘joint-engagement’ activities for parents and kids. Each was aligned to one or more learning areas. These learning areas became the common framework across Houghton’s consumer and educational products.


I crafted wireframes to show how it might look.


In the end, Curious World wasn’t built on a dime. With a solid framework in place, an expanded budget made it feasible to support a subscription model. Now we could license and create content aligned to learning areas. At that point, I pivoted. I identified the first wave of content to be licensed and ingested—setting the tone for the app’s voice and style. Thereafter, I directed content strategy, defining tagging and recommendation logic to ensure that kids got a balanced diet of skill-building activities.



The marketing and product development teams conducted frequent testing. Messaging from parents was consistent. There’s a lot of free content available to kids. But being able to track against learning areas made it subscription-worthy.

In testing, a parent watched her child play with the app. While it was a good experience, she commented that she wouldn’t pay a monthly fee for it. When we revealed the learning ‘donut’ on a parent dashboard, she remarked, “Why didn’t you show me this first? I would pay at least $10 a month for that.”


Launched in October 2015, the Curious World subscription app features hundreds of learning-aligned games, videos, and ebooks.

The addition of a parents’ portal makes this app stand out from others purporting to be educational experiences for kids.”
— Sarah Perez, TechCrunch