Why are good release notes so hard to come by? Why are they so rare that I take a screenshot when I do come by one that manages to be readable and fun?
Possibly because not everyone has caught onto the hidden value of writing really great release notes.
It’s the only thing that can explain why teams at companies like Slack and Citymapper are elevating the release note into an art form, while others just write up half-assed notes.
But you don’t have to make your release notes a work of art to take advantage of a great engagement opportunity.
Just write better release notes.
The hidden value of great release notes
Release notes aren’t necessarily read by everyone, but the people who do read them matter.
Adam Sigel, Product Manager at InsightSquared says this about release notes:
“Release notes are a really interesting engagement opportunity to me—most people don’t read them, but those that do represent a highly targeted audience of very engaged users. Every company with an app has to write them, and I love to see who treats it like an opportunity instead of a chore.”
That’s because those who do pay attention to release notes are very vocal about how their experiences hasn’t matched up to their expectations. On the flip side, they tend to give high praise for a job well done.
Emmanuel Quartey of Meltwater, who has documented some excellent examples of customer comments about release notes on social media, attributes this to their high level of emotional investment in the products they use:
“These are the people who’re getting the most value from your product, who’re emotionally invested in your team’s success, and who need to be incentivized to tell all their friends about what you’ve made.”
You may think users aren’t sitting there waiting for updates, but you may be surprised by how the most minor changes and details actually provide a unique experience to your product – and people are noticing.
They may even be willing to provide you with feedback if only you would tell them what it is you’ve released.
If a user is anxiously waiting for a specific improvement or functionality, it’s easy to see why they would get worked up over a release note like this:
Come on, LinkedIn.
In this ironic screenshot, LinkedIn doesn’t connect to people or opportunity. It just sits there, using words to communicate nothing.
‘Bug fixes and performance improvements’ is completely meaningless. What was fixed? How will performance improve? Where along the user experience can we expect improvements?
A missed opportunity to say the least.
How to write release notes
Good release notes are written to be read, clearly outlining what has been improved and how they benefit the users.
I find release notes easier to digest when they’re divided into sections. Sections make for easier scanning for users, but they’ve also helped me organize myself while I write.
Here’s the template I came up with at ProdPad:
Writing clear, specific release notes help you open up a level of communication with your customers around the progress you’re making on your product.
It’s useful for potential customers too. We’ve been asked before whether we publish release notes – probably because it’s a good indicator of whether we’re delivering what we promised on our roadmap.
It’s no secret that we’re a fan of public product roadmaps, and we encourage making your release notes public because they bring you the same benefits.
At ProdPad, I make sure ours are accessible from all our major touch points, including our app, our Help Center, our internal Slack, as well as the Slack community we’ve set up for our customers.
Customers love that commitment to transparency – it gives them a reason to trust you.
Our release notes tend to be specific and benefit-driven too, which shows customers we’re writing for them. As a result, they come talk to us, which is exactly what we want!
Here’s one of my recent release notes, complete with emoji:
Use everyday language
After a number of discussions, the Slack team finally agreed on what their release notes should look like:
“They should take the basic facts, reduce jargon, put them into words people could relate to; words that might be lightly poetic and slightly absurd, but stopped short of grating, and…nothing less than informative.”
Slack’s release notes are wonderful.
Notes like this don’t just happen. Slack points out that their whimsical-but-practical technical writing style doesn’t come easy for all their dev teams. As a result, they put all each one through a review process with an editor who checks for style, accuracy and readability.
Embrace your brand personality
“In 2015 Medium delivered updates to its app via a country ballad, a series of haiku, a eulogy, Kenny Loggins song titles, and a faux Slack conversation,” reports Verge editor, Casey Newton.
Medium gets to be fun and experimental because it’s a reflection of their brand, their purpose and the people who make up their organization.
In fact, when Newton was invited to Medium’s HQ for beers and release note writing, he found that the work was largely the product of two employees, Nick Fisher, Medium’s community manager, and Greg Gueldner, a member of the company’s trust and safety team.
“[Fisher and Gueldner] note that the release notes are consistent with Medium’s general purpose of inspiring creativity. It isn’t the only company to treat release notes as performance art…but for sheer gonzo ambition, Medium leads them all.”
Medium takes advantage of its own medium as a storytelling platform to explore new, offbeat ways to communicate their new releases.
What would your brand do?