Give Users a Hollywood Ending

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August 16, 2006
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We can all take a lesson from filmmakers: endings matter. The way we end a conversation, blog post, user experience, presentation, tech support session, chapter, church service, song, whatever... is what they'll remember most. The end can matter more to users than everything we did before. And the feeling they leave with is the one they might have forever.

Think of all the movies where the best song is saved for the ending. A big chunk of "Best Original Song" Academy Award winners have been songs that played only during the closing credits. They want you to leave the theater with the feeling that song evoked. When a movie goes through "beta" (a test screening), the studios aren't looking for feedback on the whole damn movie...they're measuring audience reaction to the end. If the audience hates the ending (too sad, too absurd, too unresolved, etc.), that's what they reshoot.

I was reminded of the power of endings when I went to another Red Rocks concert a few weeks' back--this time it was David Gray (with Aimme Mann and Beth Orton). Whatever you may think of David Gray's music, the guy gives good encore. They're like a whole separate show, and he leaves you feeling with a powerful, emotional, energetic, finale.

It's not just filmmakers that appreciate The End--learning theory has known this for a long time. Students in a classroom are more likely to remember what they learned/heard/did first and last than whatever happened in the middle. It's the Recency Effect (along with its counterpart for beginings, the Primacy Effect). Good teachers try to have more beginnings and endings by breaking up lessons into small chunks, rather than doing a single 45-minute lecture.

In fact, here's what matters in my blog posts:


From a retention and recall view, middles suck. So let's talk about endings since they're one of my personal weak spots. Even when psychology/cognitive science tells us that the end can matter more than the middle, it feels counterintuitive. We focus so heavily on the meaty-middle while the ending is just a tacked on afterthought. So what if we left the customer feeling frustrated and unsatisfied with our tech support as long as they know we spent a ton of time trying? Who cares if the presentation just... sort... of...fades...out... if the rest of it was killer? And the ending of a chapter is just another paragraph, right?

Yes, I want to think more like a filmmaker on this. As Sacha Molitorisz put it in Now that's an ending:

"When a film resolves itself well, audiences leave satisfied and content, even if the preceding 90 minutes have been uninspiring. If, however, the climax is forced or implausible, the preceding scenes will be stripped of any poignancy. In other words: a terrific ending can make an excellent film a masterpiece; a dud ending can ruin an otherwise intriguing offering."

But even if you buy into the power of the ending, the next question is, "What kind of ending?" Should it be a Hollywood ending? As opposed to, say, an indie finish? That depends on your definition and the circumstances, of course. There's hollywood endings and then there's HOLLYWOOD ENDINGS.

Not all Hollywood endings must be happy, and not all indie films must end in complete and utter incomprehensability (in that "I'm more unresolved than thou" way.) It all gets back to what we hope our users will think and feel at the end. I need to be asking the right questions about my goals, to figure out how to end:

  • Do I want to help my users memorize something?Then I should stick that at the end, or at least repeat it at the end.
  • Do I want to help and motivate my users to do something?Then I should end with what the sales/ad/preachers refer to as an inspiring Call To Action.
  • Do I want my users to think more deeply (or more creatively) about something?Then I should end with some things still unresolved (easy for me since I've rarely figured anything all-the-way out).
  • Do I want my users to be curious?Then I should end with a teaser... something that hints at what's to come, whether it's new products, new capabilities the user will have, new and exciting ways for them to participate, etc. Leave them with a question...
  • Do I want my users to care about something?Then I should end by giving them a damn good reason... something that touches the emotional side of their brain. (Note: by "care" I'm talking about things like, "care about writing software tests" or "care about creating good user docs" or "care about the importance of endings.")
  • Do I want my users to know that we care about them?Then make sure the user experience has a satisfying ending, and that means every session. (Think of how many times you've bought something online and while the shopping part is compelling, once they've taken your credit card info you're lucky to even get a text confirmation on the screen.)
  • Do I want my users to feel like they kick ass?Then I should focus less on what they think of me or my product, and more on how they'll feel about themselves as a result of the interaction. If they experience frustration, confusion, fear, anxiety, intimidation, and so on, that can be an "I suck" experience.