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Give users a Hollywood ending


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.

So, endings are crucial. They're what sticks. But why, then, are there so many examples of bad (or at least wimpy) endings?
What do YOU think?
Do you have any examples of good or bad endings?

[Bonus link: Top 50 Movie Endings]

Oh, and stay tuned because soon we're going to talk about very cool things to do with beginnings, including how to seduce your users into wanting more...

The End.

(or is it?)

Posted by Kathy on August 16, 2006 | Permalink


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My favorite endings are ones that took you someplace you didn't expect - but yet make a whole lot of new "connections" to all the stuff that came before as well as your own experience. Good writers/storytellers/movie makers do it well.

Posted by: Sara | Aug 16, 2006 9:18:55 PM

I'm in the process of putting together a presentation on what I have accomplished in my 4 years as the IT Manager at a university residential college and have been trying to work out on what point I wanted to end. Having just read your post, I've now gone back and reorganised it to end on a much stronger finish than what I was going to have! So great article Kathy and good timing :)

Posted by: Hobbes | Aug 16, 2006 10:21:18 PM

"When a film resolves itself well, audiences leave satisfied and content, even if the preceding 90 minutes have been uninspiring."

I can think of good movies with bad endings but I can't think of a single bad movie with a good ending. Even if one exists, it certainly wouldn't leave me satisfied.

"Oh my god, that movie sucked! Oh, but cool ending". NOT.

Likewise, if your presentation sucks, a good ending isn't going to save it.

Posted by: Daniel Berger | Aug 16, 2006 10:43:55 PM

Sara: excellent point! It was Mamet, I think, who said that when things happen in the film they should be "surprising yet self-evident" (I think I made a post on that somewhere on this blog...) I like to think of that for teaching, especially, where you set up completely unexpected scenarios, but then afterwards you think, "Of COURSE... how else could it possibly have worked?"

Hobbes: good for you, and good luck : )

Daniel: "...I can't think of a single bad movie with a good ending." Well, you may have just proved the point--how can you say that your perception of the movie wasn't *changed* (backward in time, even), by the ending? How do we know for certain that our opinion of the entire movie wasn't altered by the end?
But I do think that the notion of an ending fixing something no matter how bad it is would be pretty ridiculous, but that's not what I said. And if a presentation truly sucks, an ending won't fix that, but that's not what I said. An ending cannot work a miracle, but it CAN make a big difference in how all that went before it is perceived (or at least recalled).

Brains are full of tricks. There's an unrelated but potentially relevant set of studies that have proven that people WILL change their perception of *the very same piece of video visuals* based solely on the quality of the audio. If the audio is good, their perception/rating of the *visuals* goes UP. If the quality of the audio is bad, they do not say, "The video was good but the audio sucked", but rather they honestly believe that the visuals were worse as well.

We know from these studies that the power of audio is (in this context) more important than the visuals, because the reverse is not true. Nobody changed their opinion of the audio based on the visual quality. In other words, sound has the power to alter our perception of visual quality, but visuals do not have the power to alter our perception of the audio quality.

OK, now I'm not sure why I brought that up ; ) But at least it does show that our perception of things (in this case, films) can be altered by the quality of a particular aspect. And while I know that her comment was extreme, I worked for a motion picture ad agency (and did work for several studios) long enough to see just how much the ending really *did* matter during those tests.

There are lots of other situations, too, where our perception of one thing changes our perception of something else. I'll have to do a post on how students rank the quality of their instructors...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 16, 2006 11:08:05 PM

Curses! Sara stole my comment! (nearly) :-)

I was going to point out that one trap to avoid when thinking of your killer ending is that the end is not necessarily where you think it is. Just because you're the one who gave the presentation, or you're the one who wrote the blog entry, or you're the one who delivered the stuff that enabled the user experience - don't be lulled into thinking that you're the one who gets to say where the ending is going to be.

If one of your customers calls up for support on your product - that's not a _new_ interaction. That's just replacing the ending on the last interaction that you had with your customer.
You did well last time? You delivered a kick-a** product to your customer? That can all come unravelled when they next talk to you.

Likewise, blog entries. You've spent a heap of time coming up with the perfect ending to your article - but if you reply to a specific reader's comments... it's _that_ reply that will be remembered by that reader as the "ending".

Which reminds me of a philosophy suggested once:
"Live every day as if it were your last. And one day... you'll be right!"

Posted by: omni | Aug 16, 2006 11:11:00 PM

omni: you rock. And I'm not just saying that so it'll be the thing you remember ; )
Now I am going to remember this:
"one trap to avoid when thinking of your killer ending is that the end is not necessarily where you think it is. Just because you're the one who gave the presentation, or you're the one who wrote the blog entry, or you're the one who delivered the stuff that enabled the user experience - don't be lulled into thinking that you're the one who gets to say where the ending is going to be."

You certainly got MY brain spinning.
Hmmmm... and what if we applied this to beginnings as well? (And of course our writing teachers always try to tell us that we should never begin at the beginning)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Aug 16, 2006 11:20:00 PM

Thank you! Very smooth! ;-)

But that's an excellent idea about beginings!
As an example:
I guess if you get it right, the chances are much higher that the word of mouth "marketing" power of a passionate user base is going to get to new people - begining the association - before your own marketing efforts kick in.

I guess the question that springs to mind is:
Is it possible to (usefully) take all of that into account when designing the stuff that our users will experience? Or is it counter-productive to try?

Posted by: omni | Aug 17, 2006 12:14:28 AM

In the beginning I give the benefit of doubt and pay extra attention. Then by its own nature my mind wanders. There is so much processing about right and wrong( wrt my world view, prior knowledge, this and that) When the end comes there is automatic realization about the wandering and again I pay extra attention.

Omni: The philosophy is more like the journey of the seed. Is fruit/seed the begin or the end?
Kathy, when you go into it 'headfirst' your head will spin; But if you stop for a moment you will see the continuum: And Bang! You will feel the Oneness!

Posted by: Idea, Execution, Profit! | Aug 17, 2006 2:51:27 AM


Nicely done. But not quite the complete picture.

Research by the likes of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann and Dan Arielly show quite clearly that people actually use three factors when evaluating how good an experience was. One is obviously the ending. The other two are the trend (getting better vs. getting worse) and the highest emotional point. Interestingly, in most circumstances, the length of time isn't factored into the evaluation.

The best approach when designing an experience is obviously to gradually build up to a high point right at the end. The ending alone is not enough to create a great evaluation.

Don't take it from me. Read it for yourself in Kahnemann's 2002 Nobel Prize lecture at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2002/kahnemann-lecture.pdf

Take care when designing experiences, not to design solely for the customer's thinking brain. Neurobiology research shows that 95% of the evaluation of an experience is done through non-conscious evaluation of the emotions and associated feelings the experience evokes.

Graham Hill

Posted by: Graham Hill | Aug 17, 2006 3:10:29 AM

Great points as ever Kathy, but let's not underplay the middle - yes it can sag and be flabby but if we're disciplined it can also conform to Pescian logic and roll us through to the ending.

And not in the style of the middle of a David Gray concert where the prevalent emotion must surely be "will this ever end?"

Posted by: John Dodds | Aug 17, 2006 3:32:10 AM

It's what I've always called the big pink bow. We naturally want everything neatly tied off, with nothing left unresolved. I'm like this about disagreements - I want resolution. It drives my husband nuts because I can't let a thing go until we have achieved resolution, while he's quite happy to put it behind him and move on.

On the subject of presentations, though, I provided training in presentation skills for many years and one of the things I found was that a presentation often worked better if the intended closing paragraph was brought to the beginning, the intended opening paragraph scrapped and a new ending written. So yes, it always seemed the most tweaking needed to focus on the start and finish.

Posted by: karyn_romeis | Aug 17, 2006 7:36:42 AM

As a mountain biker racer, VP sales and Enthusiast Blogger for yourmtb.com, my entire thought process is the end game.

1. Winning the race
2. Closing the sale
3. Writing a good blog people will remember

Your post clued me into a couple of ideas I should use when considering the ending:

1. Race with the end in mind. Don't worry about attacking out of the gate. Stay calm and relax into the course. Let the other riders burn out.

2. The preliminary software sales work, i.e. marketing, promotion, conversation, etc. is nothing without the "sale" at the end. Focus on getting the sale not on everything else.

3. Write short and simple paragraphs with the ending in mind. Don't worry about the guts of the paragraph. Keep it tight, yet end with a BANG!

Posted by: Walker Thompson | Aug 17, 2006 7:50:01 AM

Interesting thoughts, i think you're very much on to something in your post.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

Posted by: RC of strangeculture | Aug 17, 2006 7:59:58 AM

What about cultural differences?
One thing that comes to mind for me is the immense difference between a typical Hollywood movie vs. a typical Asian film. To generalize, if it's Asian, the hero is gonna die. If it's American, the hero rides into the sunset. I realize I'm generalizing here, but I have to wonder if the way you frame your endings should change based on whether you're presenting to an audience from a different culture? Would giving a "big pink bow" to a conservative Japanese client be less satisfying than...hmmm, now I can't think of a positive way to express killing off the hero. "Sacrifice the product for the user!", maybe?
Anyway, just wanted to point out that there are different cultural expectations of pacing, ending, and (I can't wait for the "seduction" post!) beginnings.

Posted by: Gray Miller | Aug 17, 2006 8:41:52 AM

And one more thing...

Posted by: Rimantas | Aug 17, 2006 10:14:25 AM

The ironic part about this post is that it is LONG (not unlike many of your posts). I read the first couple of paragraphs, tuned out for the middle, and read the last paragraph or three.

This isn't intended to be a slam or critique, merely an observation of the intersection of your writing style, my reading style, and today's post.

Posted by: jt | Aug 17, 2006 10:43:21 AM

It's a great point you make here. As a public speaker, I see many times how a good ending is more important than most of what is said. I think the beginning is a bit more important than the ending just because capturing attention is essentail to have people listening before the end.

One thing I would add about the middle. Most people don't think about the pace and timing of the middle. If the middle is too long, then the user never makes it to the end. They have checked out before then. You can put sections in the middle to make it seem less long, but you still have to capture attention at each section to maintain interest.

It's very formulaic, but the grade school rule of one intro paragraph, three body paragraphs and one concluding paragraph is an actually very useful tool in pacing and flow.

Posted by: Conrad | Aug 17, 2006 11:06:09 AM

Castaway was a great movie, but its ending really sucked, in my opinion. The last half-hour, or however long, is just a gradual decline, leading up to a final shot of Tom Hanks with a goofy smile.

The best ending I can think of is the original Super Mario Bros. The game itself is very solid, and while the "ending" is rather short, it gives you exactly what you want: more gameplay! You start the game over, but now it's more challenging. It's too bad they didn't continue this in the later games.

On a similar note, Super Mario Bros. 2 has a decent ending, story-wise. The game doesn't really make sense; none of the enemies are familiar and the method of killing them is kind of absurd. When you finally beat the last guy, you find out that Mario was dreaming. It's kind of cliché, but it makes the entire game sort of make sense.

Years later, I discovered that SMB2 was really a different Japanese game but with different graphics, which explains the different game mechanics.

Posted by: Ryan Fox | Aug 17, 2006 11:06:22 AM

"Vast, Cognitive Wasteland"--Now I know what to call the middle. I always knew it wasn't Oreo creme filling.

Posted by: Doug Emerson | Aug 17, 2006 12:28:11 PM

With regards to the ending of a shopping experience, I think CDBaby rocks above all others. Here's the e-mail they send to you after you've made a purchase:

-- begin

Your CDs have been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CDs and polished them to make sure they were in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CDs into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Tuesday, August 15th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as "Customer of the Year". We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

-- end

How's _that_ for a rousing shopping experience? =)

Kathy, I dig the bit about sound affecting one's impression of a visual piece. When I was younger I used to play a game called Fury 3. I could never get the sound to work though so I'd make my own sound effects. It was awesome; I had so much fun with that game. (Despite my parents coming over to me on occasion to see what the hell I was doing.)

Posted by: Rabbit | Aug 17, 2006 12:46:15 PM

Three words: Thelma and Louise


Posted by: Ed Borasky | Aug 17, 2006 2:06:47 PM

I may be wandering far afield here, but jumping off Graham Hill's post about evaluating an experience by non-conscious emotional reactions and later comments on audio affecting the video, I've seen one instance lately that might demonstrate the points. It's a commercial by a big aerospace contractor. The music is soft and lilting, as if it belongs with footage of a picnic. But the visuals are military aircraft and targeting systems. (The company uses the same track more effectively in other commercials, for a campaign effect, I guess.) The spot left me disturbed and confused, and it's ending was only good because it meant the spot was over. The power of music and audio quality to make or break an entire av experience, I think, is stronger than many realize. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Kathy. As usual, I feel momentarily smarter for having dropped by.

Posted by: everysandwich | Aug 17, 2006 2:56:11 PM

The ending is especially important when the recepient is likely to experience it. That's not always the case, you know. If you make movies or teach, only very few people will actually leave during the show. But if you are making content for the web or tv, you will probably find that the beginning is even more important than the end. Because the most difficult part of your job is to make people slow down and read/view whatever you made.

Posted by: Per Esmann Jensen | Aug 18, 2006 1:23:00 PM


While I agree that endings are very important (you're always as good as your last show), and you want to send people off with something to remember, I also think it's really critical to have a meaty middle that grabs and holds attention. For example, I read your blog as often as I can, and I must say that each time I read it I feel like I've just discovered something - a new thought, phrase, concept. What I've discoverd is introduced to me in the beginning and maybe punctuated at the end, but it's the nuggets in that consistently great middle that I remember. So, please don't change your style!

As a software interface designer, I think that every task you try to get someone through has an ending - the most satisfying ending (of course) is for the user to have gotten there with no pain, feeling smart and pleased that they accomplished what they set out to do, and having the process be learnable and memorable so they want to do it again (cause in most cases they have to). And if what the user produces as a result of this task delights them, then that's the Hollywood ending I'd like. Doesn't happen enough though.

The beginning is making the access to the task recognizable, intuitive, and natural.

The middle is the hardest - those clues, both verbal and visual, that guide you through the journey of the task.

So how about after you write something about beginnings, you could consider those middles again. Maybe you'd have something more complimentary to say about them? Just a thought.

Posted by: Merry | Aug 19, 2006 2:35:21 PM

Points well taken and well considered. But neither the post, nor any of the comments have covered the obvious advice that most expository writers, speakers, or presenters miss:


When you know where you're going, first you can build towards it. Second, it makes editing down much easier: everything that builds toward the ending stays, anything that doesn't serve the experience of the ending, dele. Dollars to donuts that advice given in advance would have saved Karyn (above) the trouble of moving endings to the beginning and designing a new ending.

Ending of this comment? A question: Why aren't most blogging tools designed to encourage this strategy as well as desktop word processors or outliners?

Posted by: Harry Miller | Aug 19, 2006 10:11:47 PM

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