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Designing endings

There are lots of design patterns for onboarding users — why are there so few for endings?

LOONEY TOONS, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

What’s your favourite ending? For most of us, we’ll think about a book or movie that we really enjoyed. It might be a thriller with a completely unexpected twist at the end. Or a Netflix series we binge-watched with an incredible cliff-hanger at the end of a season.

But not all endings are about extreme emotions like this. When was the last time you used a product or service with a really good ending? The things we use everyday might not have big endings like the epic stories we watch, read or play, but they do all have a point when we stop using them. How often do we think about what that ending is like for these experiences, and how can we make it better?

As a studio obsessed with the craft of storytelling, we think about endings a lot at Storythings. In fact, many years ago we organised an evening event called The Beginning, The Middle and The End, and invited people to share their design patterns for each stage. We had lots of potential speakers for onboarding people at the beginning of a product or service, a few who could talk about the challenges of running and scaling products in the middle, but hardly anyone who could talk about designing for endings.

We ended up inviting a friend of ours who had been the person responsible for shutting down the Radio 4 message boards for The Archers. This was pretty much the last message board that the BBC shut down from their website, and it had been an incredible vibrant community, but not actually very much about The Archers. Our friend got a lot of abuse for being the person who had to make the call to switch it off, and even got a protest t-shirt sent to his home. This is an extreme example, but it shows how emotional endings can be for people.

The only person we know who specialised in designing endings is Joe McLeod, previously Head of Design at UsTwo. His new company — — is the first design company focused solely on desiging good endings in products and services. We highly recommend his book on designing Endings as well.

We’re currently designing formats for remote engagement with older audiences for Turner Contemporary in Margate, funded by the Catalyst project. As part of the research for this we had informal chats with potential participants about their media habits— what TV or radio shows they like, what books they read, newspaper, or any kind of content experience that they particularly like. This is a really fun way to get an insight into what formats they are already familiar with, an important factor in content design because formats act as a kind of ‘heuristic’ — a mental model of a content experience that we can use in our format design process.

If we design a format that feels already familiar to participants, it reduces the barriers to them trying it, and increases the likelihood that they will stay with the format over multiple episodes. We’re all trying to manage our attention these days, so it’s really important to help people feel comfortable with how much attention they’re going to need, and what a content experience will feel like. Familiar formats help communicate this really efficiently — something we’re exploring at Storythings in our new Formats Unpacked weekly newsletter.

The research we did with the older audience for Turner gave us a really important insight — a lot of the formats they like have very strong, satisfying endings. This includes puzzle shows like Only Connect, where a set of clues gradually reveal a seemingly bizarre connection at the end, or ‘Scandi thrillers’ that people binge-watched to find out who did it at the end.

So, we borrowed an idea from Joe McLeod and started to think about personas for endings — descriptions of how we wanted our participants to feel at the end of the project. Out of this we came up with two end personas— one about feeling hopeful for the future, and one about feeling that sense of satisfication when you see the connections between seemingly unrelated things.

We then started designing the content format backwards — we knew how we wanted people to feel at the end, so every step has to lead participants towards that feeling. It’s a really interesting way to design an experience, and has let to us designing formats that are quite different from ones we have created where onboarding is the priority. It forces you to ask a lot of questions about the emotional experience of a format, and what you can give to participants to take away as memories. Service or product design is often about the opposite — what we need to get from the user at the start of a transaction — so it feels really nice to focus on what we can give them instead.

In one format, the end experience is really personal, and involves participants sending the work they have created to one other person. This ending will be something we’re not involved in at all, but hopefully will give them a strong, and memorably, emotional end to the project. For the other, the ending involves telling a story backwards, in the reverse order to how we’ve helped them construct it. By telling it backwards, they actually give the story a kind of magic that it wouldn’t have if told the other way. Again, I don’t think we’d have come up with this if we hadn’t started with the ending first.

We’re testing the prototypes over the next few weeks, so we’ll share the outcomes at the end. It feels quite fitting that the ending of this research project will be in the hands of our participants — I feel like we’re in the middle of solving a puzzle ourselves, and we don’t yet know what the ending is.



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