The Happy Ending: Redeeming bad experiences


Oliver McGough

June 30, 2015

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Experiences. We encounter them constantly throughout our daily ride through life. The commute to & from work; client meetings; dinner with friends. Each is an experience of its own – each with its own start and end point, each with its own journey. Afterwards, we reflect upon each activity – we understand what we liked and didn’t like – we understand how that experience left us feeling.

The peculiar thing about these experiences is that subsequent feeling isn’t always easy to break down. Exactly why did we enjoy dinner last night?On the whole, it was a great experience – a laugh with good friends. Yet, when I break down each individual component of that meal – it wasn’t really that great. It was actually pretty mediocre. The food was nothing to write home about and James was there, I hate James. But still, dinner was great, it was a great experience. Something just doesn’t add up.

Something doesn’t add up, because our brains don’t give equal weighting to all portions (forgive the pun) of that experience.

  • “Research using gambling techniques shows that a ‘happy ending’ provides a disproportionate weight in decision-making – meaning that this ‘happy ending’ can wildly skew what we think we should do next over what experience would tell us.”

From the original article.

Writing in the journal, they use the analogy of a three-course dinner: it has mediocre starter, a fine main, and an excellent dessert. This will be viewed much more favourably – and have much more weight in any future decision – than the inverse: an excellent starter and ending with a mediocre dessert, despite the fact that overall both experiences share equal value.

In other words, only that last segment of an experience matters. Our decision making is affected to such an extent that we only remember the experience based on the ‘happy ending’, the outcome – regardless of the slog we had to haul through to get there.


It isn’t just happy endings that confuse our brains in such a way, a bad ending will have much the same effect. The experience may be amazing, but an unhappy ending holds the greatest weight in future decision making. Thus we reflect upon that experience based on the negative and unevenly weighted unhappy ending.

This effect on our subconscious is an evolutionary trait, our default state telling us that an experience is worth re-visiting – telling us that the reward is worth regaining no matter the arduous work to get it, and vice versa.

And for us as UX designers, what does it mean?

For us as UXers, the translation is simple: We can have an amazing application – with an amazing experience – but if that end interaction is terrible, you’ll be remembered not by that amazing journey, but by that anticlimactic ending.

On the flip side,

We can have an application with a terrible experience, but if that end interaction is amazing, it can help to redeem things. It may even be reflected on positively in the user’s mind going forward. Thus;

The end of the user’s journey is the most important phase in UX design.

It is the ending which carries that higher weighting in decision making. If we want our users to leave happy; to leave praising & sharing our product – the experience – then that ending must be a happy one. If the experience falls flat at the ending, what is the motivation to return – knowing the outcome is meaningless?

This is explains the recent thirst for gamification elements. Those achievements represent a happy outcome – no matter how laborious the experience, achievements aim to offset the poor experience with a little bit of happiness. By providing a means to an end, we ensure our users leave happy – reflect upon happiness – and keep coming back for more.


This isn’t a call to ignore the quality of the journey and only focus on that ending – don’t be so foolish, the reflective bias on the ending can only be so strong. This is a friendly reminder that us humans are wired in a certain way. By designing with that ending in mind, we can build experiences that are perceived of as great – experiences that users keep coming back to.

After-all, if this conclusion didn’t sit well too well with you, you probably won’t be sharing this article. (Please do!)

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