Years ago, pre-web and pre-apps, I used to do print creating posters, ads, flyers, and record covers. The creative process had stages of a briefing, accompanied by some level of research, a period of enquiry. This is followed by sketching, mock-ups, artwork, and production — broadly similar to other fields of creative work. Some of this has changed due to digitization. Of particular note is the way this experience ends for the designer.

People like ends. It helps us define things. In psychology, observations have found humans like to experience an ending in two ways. Firstly, to seek out closure quickly (the urgency tendency). Secondly, the need for that ending to be maintained for as long as possible (the permanence tendency).

From permanent ends to agile sprints

In the past, doing a design job for me meant a print job. The end was palatable and real: handing the job to the printer. Waiting for the results was an agonizing 24-hour period, after which we could only gaze helplessly at the results. There was only one shot. One conclusion. One outcome. The end was over in a flash; far more a cliff drop than a transition between states. The end was permanent.

Roll forward 20 years and my history tumbled through early websites, mobile, service design, app design, and all manner of product development. The process certainly changed, and with it the experience of an ending. The creative process is now more commonly applied to digital experiences. For an interactive proposal, we build a version of the experience with the added interactive dimensions of depth, time, and data. The static binary options of paper are long gone.

The cover page of Joe Macleod's book, Ends.
Joe’s book, Ends, explores why designers overlook endings and why we really shouldn’t.

Adjacent to this are the changes in teams and ways of working. Out went the single vision art director with ego. In came agile sprints and coaches. Alongside design tools adapted and matured. Designs are now easily shared with concerned parties — users, clients, team members. Feedback objectively assessed through eye tracking and implemented in real-time.

A soft launch ekes the design into the world. Even fully realized proposals can lay in beta mode for years, encouraging the user to provide forgiveness for any rough edges and shortcomings. Even a sense of excitement that the company could pivot at any moment.

Yes, this has eased the stress in the moment of an ending. It is now smooth, comfortable, and risk has been lowered considerably.

The lack of permanence in digital experiences

Yet as I look at another Instagram post of people gathered in a room, with Post-It-Notes and a celebratory “Great work today” comment, I think of the lack of permanency in creative work. Work that is captured on temporary square bits of paper, then delegated to the most junior person in the team to capture into PowerPoint, destined to a server to store. Just long enough for people to forget the name of the project.

As a design becomes real, it divides and iterates. Versions become like sand washed over by the next tide of an A/B test, discussed at the next sprint meeting and changed at the next release.

Ends have become emotionally eased in the creative process, but the result now lacks permanency.

Not all customers experience the same thing. Testing renders websites, apps, games or any other digital experience changeable. With regular updates to software the metaphorical ground is shifting under the design and the foundations it sits on. Every customer experience is unique and momentary. This also removes evidence of a singular element to represent our cultural history. Archiving these new digital assets is difficult. David Rosenthal, a Stanford digital preservationist, talks about the ease of archiving previous platforms: “Paper as the medium for the world’s memory has one great advantage, it survives benign neglect well.”

Imagine the effort to keep alive the environment of an online game, website, or app? Far from surviving, the digital memory has ended the moment it’s experienced, impossible a few years after it’s launched. So, what does this lack of permanency mean for your creative digital endeavors? Should you be campaigning for Behance to become more like the Web Archive?

Broken narratives

Other creative outlets are surviving the impact of time. Stories and narrative structures in society have been providing meaning to our lives for thousands of years. We have told tales around the campfire since primitive times. The end of these stories held enormous value. It created meaning in the rest of the narrative, inspiring us to look at our world in different ways.

Elizabeth MacArthur, in her book Extravagant Narratives, says: “Closure in narratives attempts to preserve the moral and social order which would be threatened by endlessly erring narratives.”⁠

Interactive narratives are more complicated than the historical linear form. We can still watch the earliest of films but the website you built five years ago is gone. That app from three years ago now looks pretty flaky.

But let us not wallow in the self-pity of failing to make a mark in the world. Or for that matter feel like the lack of interest in the end is something to do with us as individuals. No. Actually perceived endings have been eroded across our consumer society over centuries. The Industrial Revolution’s drive to fulfil factory capacity had a big influence on endings in the consumer experience. Alongside the emerging marketing techniques that drove a faster consumer experience, tethering it to identity, first through banking and credit rating. But more recently through our personal endorsements and emotions. In parallel to this was a fading of the relationship to waste. A distancing of personal responsibility at the end of the consumer experience.

Together, these activities have broken the beginning from the end. In its wake, consumption’s ills have grown. Across business sectors, we see the fallout of bad endings. Climate change represents humanity’s inability to end the narrative with oil, despite knowing the consequences. In the digital world, we have been encouraged, as consumers, to create content, share content. Yet we are not provided tools that empower us to remove that same content, despite it undermining our personal reputation.

Designing endings

So what can you do as a designer to start designing the end? Let’s face it, as an industry we have been key to this distancing of the end — encouraged by our clients to push harder and harder to acquire a customer and keep them. That is why I think we are key in changing the tide. Becoming the guardian of endings. And creating endings for all consumers.

One of the best places to start is to imagine what that end will be. What is the aftermath of the engagement? We spend lots of time imagining what the consumer experience is going to be — what is the first-time use like, how will they experience the most common task flow? But we rarely consider what the consumer experience is like once they have left the product or service experience.

When I run this exercise in the Ends workshop, I encourage people to create two Post Service Personas (both who have left your business). One has the ideal, and somewhat cliché experience we are guilty of creating in our persona. The other is the antithesis of this. Challenging the norm. They are the forgotten.

I then get the attendees to imagine the world those people live in the aftermath. How do they feel with the company they left. What elements of the engagement linger in their world? What do they tell their friends? What are their actions? Are they receiving emotionless sales emails still?

We then divide these experiences into Desirable and Avoidable categories and discuss how the off-boarding experiences could elevate the negatives and enhance the positives. Aiming to tell another story at the conclusion of their consumer lifecycle.

I invite you to think about people in the aftermath. After the end has happened. Designers are skilled in creating narratives. Building rich, engaging and meaningful experiences to on-board customers. But we have failed in the past to provide the same attention to off-boarding. Telling the end of the story. We need to re-imagine ourselves and to broaden our responsibilities. Before we fade into irrelevance as designers, like so many forgotten consumers, in a history without an end.