Unlocking the power of release notes for better updates
May 12, 2023
You’ve been working tirelessly on your latest software update, and you’re excited to share it. But how will your users know what’s new, what’s fixed, and what’s simply too cool to miss? Enter the release notes — your user’s friendly neighborhood guide to all the ins and outs of your shiny new update.
The problem is, after all the hard work that’s gone into creating a product and the excitement of releasing it, those little notes often get overlooked. Or they’re rushed and end up not communicating the real value of your hard work.
This is a shame. Release notes are often overlooked but are oh-so-crucial for bridging the developer-user gap and keeping everyone in the loop. So in this article, we’re going to take a closer look at what they are, why they’re important, and, of course, give you some tips on how to write notes that are clear, concise, and as exciting as your latest features. Let’s get stuck in!
What are release notes?
In the most basic sense, release notes are the little memos that accompany each new version of your software. They’re like a virtual wave between you and your users, saying, “Hey! Here’s what we’ve been up to lately.” They communicate the changes, improvements, and bug fixes so that users are informed and excited about the latest and greatest features.
But release notes are more than just an information dump. They’re an essential part of the user experience and can help build trust and rapport with your audience. When written well, they show that you’re actively working on improving the software, addressing issues, and delivering on your promises. Plus, they help users make the most of your product by highlighting new features and functionality that they may not have discovered otherwise.
In a nutshell, release notes serve a few key purposes:
- Inform: They let your users know about new features, improvements, and bug fixes in a clear and concise manner.
- Educate: They provide context and guidance on how to use the new features and improvements effectively.
- Engage: They pique users’ interest and foster excitement for your software, which can help drive adoption and retention.
- Build Trust: They demonstrate your commitment to continuous improvement and addressing users’ needs and concerns.
To sum it up, release notes are like a newsletter from the world of software development, keeping users in the know and making sure they’re always up to date with the latest from your team.
The benefits of release notes
Now that we know what release notes are, let’s dive into the good stuff — the benefits! Release notes might seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of software development, but they pack a powerful punch when it comes to delivering value to your users. Here are some of the key benefits:
Release notes create a direct line of communication between your team and your users, ensuring everyone stays informed about what’s happening with the software. They also help set expectations and keep users engaged with your product, which leads to increased satisfaction and loyalty.
By providing clear and concise information about updates, release notes help reduce the number of support inquiries your team receives. Users can refer to release notes for answers to common questions or troubleshooting tips, which frees up your support team to focus on more complex issues.
When users are aware of new features and improvements, they’re more likely to try them out and incorporate them into their workflow. Release notes can help drive the adoption of your latest updates, ensuring users get the most value.
Release notes also serve as a platform for gathering feedback from users about the changes you’ve made. By encouraging users to share their thoughts and experiences, you can gain valuable insights that inform future updates and improvements.
Release notes help build trust by showing that you’re committed to continuous improvement and open about the changes you’re making to your software.
They also provide a historical record of your software updates, making it easier for your team and users to track progress and understand the evolution of your product. This can be particularly helpful for onboarding new team members or for users who need to reference past updates.
The purpose of release notes
In the world of project management, keeping everyone on the same page is crucial for success. Release notes play an essential role in this process, serving as a communication tool that helps to bridge the gap between developers, project managers, and users.
First and foremost, release notes provide a concise summary of the work completed during a specific development cycle. This helps managers stay on target for deadlines and key milestones.
By providing a clear record of completed tasks and updates, release notes help project managers identify areas where additional attention or resources may be needed.
Release notes facilitate clear communication between different stakeholders involved in a project, including developers, testers, designers, and clients. By creating a shared understanding, release notes prevent misunderstandings and ensure everyone works towards the same goals.
By clearly outlining the changes and improvements, project managers can help set realistic expectations. This leads to greater satisfaction and trust in the software.
Release notes encourage users to share their thoughts and experiences with each update, allowing project managers to gain insights to inform future development and ensure the software continues to meet the needs of its users.
In project management, maintaining thorough documentation is essential for effective decision-making. Release notes create a historical record of updates and changes, which are valuable for project managers when looking back at the evolution of a product or when onboarding new team members.
The consequences of not having release notes
Release notes = more work. Are they really worth it?
We’ve talked about the benefits of release notes, but what happens if you decide to skip them?
While it might seem like a harmless omission, not including release notes will have unintended consequences for your software and your users. Let’s take a look at some of the potential pitfalls.
Confusion and frustration
Without release notes to inform users about changes and updates, they’re left in the dark, unsure of what’s new or how to use new features. This leads to confusion, frustration, and potential dissatisfaction with your software. Users may be more likely to reach out to your support team for help or simply give up and look for alternative solutions.
Lower adoption rates
If users aren’t aware of new features or improvements, they won’t get the most out of your product. This could lead to lower adoption rates for your latest updates, dissatisfaction, or worse — abandonment.
Missed opportunities for feedback
When you don’t include release notes, you lose a valuable channel for gathering user feedback. This can make it harder to identify and address issues, as well as to prioritize future improvements based on user needs and preferences.
Damage to your reputation
In a competitive software market, transparency and communication are key to building trust and credibility. Failing to provide release notes gives the impression you’re not committed to continuous improvement or that you’re not being forthcoming about the changes you’re making to your software.
Inefficient use of resources
Without release notes to guide users through updates, your support team may find themselves fielding more inquiries about new features and bug fixes. This leads to increased workloads for your support team, taking time and resources away from more complex issues.
Who should write release notes?
The truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The honor of writing these essential notes can fall on different team members, depending on the size and structure of your organization, as well as your specific workflow.
Here are some common options for who might take on the task.
Often, the developers who worked on the updates are best positioned to write release notes, as they have a deep understanding of the changes and improvements. Just keep in mind that developers may need guidance to ensure the release notes are clear, concise, and user-friendly, especially for non-techy audiences.
If your organization has a dedicated technical writing team, they are an excellent choice for creating release notes. Technical writers have the skills to translate complex information into easy-to-understand language, which is crucial for crafting release notes that resonate with your users. If you don’t have a dedicated in-house team, consider hiring a freelancer to help you out.
Product managers or owners
These team members have a comprehensive understanding of the product and its updates, as well as the needs and expectations of the user base. They can ensure that release notes are informative, engaging, and aligned with the overall product strategy.
Customer support or success teams
Customer support teams interact closely with users and have a deep understanding of their needs. By involving them in the release notes process, you raise your chances of creating release notes that address real user concerns.
Ultimately, the key is to choose someone who has a strong understanding of the product and its updates, as well as the ability to communicate that information effectively to your users. In some organizations, it might even make sense to have a collaborative approach, with multiple team members contributing their insights and expertise to create comprehensive, engaging notes.
Release notes best practices: a step-by-step guide
Now that you know how useful release notes are, you’re going to need to know the best ways to implement them. Here are some basic steps to follow.
1. Use a template
Templates provide a structured format that streamlines the process, making it easier for you to craft clear, concise, and informative release notes every time. Plus, users will appreciate the familiarity and predictability of your format, as they’ll know exactly what to expect and where to find the information they need.
Here are some tips on creating and using a release notes template:
Determine the key sections
Decide on the main sections you want to include. For example, a summary, new features, improvements, bug fixes, known issues, and any additional resources or links.
Use clear headings and subheadings
Organize your template with headings and subheadings that reflect the sections you’ve chosen. This not only helps you stay organized while writing but also makes it easy for users to find the information they need.
Keep the layout simple
A clean, easy-to-read layout is essential. Stick to simple formatting and use bullet points, numbered lists, or tables to organize information where appropriate.
Include placeholders for details
In each section of your template, include placeholders for specific details, such as version numbers, dates, or links to additional resources. This will serve as a reminder to fill in those details and ensure your release notes are up-to-date.
While it’s important to have a consistent structure, don’t be afraid to modify your template as needed to accommodate unique updates or changes. Your template should be a living document that evolves alongside your software and the needs of your users.
2. Give clear reasons for your changes
Remember, your users want to know the “why” behind the updates, not just the “what.” So, while you’re writing those release notes, think about how you can convey the purpose and reasoning behind each change in a way that’s easy to understand.
Here are some tips:
Focus on the user’s perspective
When explaining the intent behind an update, think about how it affects your users. For example, instead of saying, “We’ve optimized the database queries,” try something like, “We’ve made some behind-the-scenes improvements to speed up your experience and make everything run more smoothly.”
Share the benefits
Along with describing the changes, highlight the positive impact they’ll have on the user’s experience. This could be something like, “With this new feature, you’ll be able to complete tasks twice as fast, giving you more time to focus on what matters most.”
Use relatable examples
If you can, provide real-life examples or use cases that illustrate the intent of the changes. This will help users better understand the purpose of the updates and how they can make the most of them.
Keep it friendly
Remember, we’re going for a conversational tone here. Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through and inject a bit of humor or warmth into your writing. This will make your release notes more engaging and enjoyable to read.
Highlight key bits of information
Make text bold so it stands out to people who tend to scan.
3. Use visuals
You know what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and in the case of release notes, that couldn’t be more true. Adding visuals like screenshots, GIFs, or even short video clips can really bring your updates to life and make your release notes more engaging.
Here’s how to incorporate visuals effectively:
Choose the right visuals
Think about what kind of visuals best showcase the changes or updates you’re describing. For instance, a screenshot might be perfect for highlighting a redesigned interface, while a video could be great for demonstrating how a new feature works.
Keep it relevant
Make sure the visuals you include are directly related to the updates you’re discussing. This will help users easily connect the visuals to the changes and understand the context.
Don’t overdo it
While visuals can be a fantastic addition, don’t go overboard. Stick to using images that add value, and no more; including too many will make your release notes feel cluttered or overwhelming.
Optimize for different devices
Your users may be reading your release notes on various devices, like desktops, laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Ensure your visuals are optimized for different screen sizes and resolutions so they look great no matter where they’re viewed.
Be mindful of file size
Large image or video files can slow down loading times for users, especially those with slower internet connections. Optimize your visuals to keep file sizes small without sacrificing quality.
4. Avoid the jargon
We’ve all been there — reading something that’s so full of techy terms and industry-speak that it may as well be in a foreign language. When it comes to release notes, we want to keep things clear, accessible, and conversational.
Here’s how to steer clear of jargon and make your release notes more user-friendly:
Write for your audience
Keep in mind that your users come from a range of backgrounds and may not be familiar with all the technical terms you use. When writing your release notes, imagine you’re explaining the updates to a friend or family member who’s not an expert in your field.
Simplify complex concepts
If you need to discuss a technical concept, try to break it down into simpler terms or use analogies to make it more relatable. For example, instead of talking about “asynchronous processing,” try “the software can now handle multiple tasks at once, making it more efficient.”
Define necessary terms
In some cases, you might need to use a technical term that’s essential to understanding the update. In these instances, provide a brief definition or explanation to help your users grasp the concept. For example, “We’ve implemented two-factor authentication (2FA), a security feature that requires two forms of verification — like a password and a unique code — to access your account.”
Read it out loud
One great way to check if you sound like a human is to read them aloud. If it sounds natural and easy to understand when spoken, you’re on the right track.
5. Keep it organized
Nobody likes sifting through a jumbled mess of information to find what they’re looking for, right? By organizing your release notes in a clear and logical manner, you’ll make it a breeze for users to find the updates that matter most to them. Plus, it’ll make your release notes look polished and professional.
Here are some tips for keeping your release notes easy to navigate:
Stick to the template
Remember that handy template we talked about in step one? Staying consistent with that structure will help users become familiar with the layout of your release notes, making it easier for them to find the information they need each time you release an update.
Use clear section headers
Break your release notes into sections based on the type of updates, like new features, improvements, and bug fixes. Use bold or larger text for section headers to make them stand out and guide your users through the content.
Utilize bullet points and lists
Presenting information in a list format or using bullet points makes your release notes more digestible and visually appealing.
Be consistent with formatting
Consistency is key when it comes to organization. Use the same font, text size, and color scheme throughout your release notes to create a cohesive look and feel.
Start with the most significant or exciting updates first and work your way down to the smaller or more minor changes. This way, users can quickly see the highlights and then dive into the nitty-gritty details if they’re interested.
Use project management tools
Project management tools like Backlog can be a game changer when it comes to creating notes. Having a centralized repository for all your information makes it easy to gather the necessary data to create comprehensive, timely notes. Plus, with features like version tracking, task assignment, and due dates, project managers can have a clear view of versions and progress from project start to finish.
6. promote yourself (but don’t overdo it)
While release notes are a great opportunity to remind users of your brand’s personality and values, it’s also essential not to let them overshadow the main purpose of your release notes: informing users about the latest changes and improvements.
Here’s how to tastefully promote your brand without overdoing it:
Keep your brand voice consistent
Your release notes should reflect your brand’s voice and tone, whether that’s casual and friendly, formal and professional, or somewhere in between. By maintaining a consistent brand voice, you’ll help create a cohesive experience for your users across all touchpoints.
Incorporate your brand’s visual elements
Subtly weaving in your brand’s colors, logo, or typography can help reinforce your brand identity and make your release notes feel more connected to your overall brand experience. Just be sure not to go overboard – the focus should still be on the content itself.
Show your brand values in action
Use your release notes as an opportunity to demonstrate how your brand values are reflected in the updates you’re sharing. For example, if your brand is all about innovation, emphasize how the new features or improvements showcase your commitment to staying ahead of the curve.
Share stories and achievements
If your updates are the result of user feedback or collaboration within your team, share a brief anecdote or give credit where it’s due. This not only humanizes your brand but also shows that you listen to your users and value their input.
Be mindful of self-promotion
While it’s okay to highlight your brand’s strengths and achievements, avoid turning your release notes into an advertisement. Users are there to learn about the updates, so keep the focus on providing valuable and relevant information.
Examples of effective release notes
Monzo, a mobile-only digital bank, is known for its engaging and user-friendly release notes. They focus on explaining the updates from the user’s perspective and emphasize the benefits of the changes. Monzo’s release notes are easy to understand and often include humor, making them fun to read.
Music streaming platform Spotify creates release notes that are both engaging and informative. Its release notes are typically brief and to the point, with a touch of humor and personality.
Release notes and project management tools: your dream team
Release notes help everyone know what’s going on, why it’s happening, and how things are improving during a product’s lifecycle. And while it may be tempting to treat them like an afterthought, you should give them as much care and attention as any other documentation. To help you stay on a release note roll, consider using tools that do some of the heavy lifting.
Backlog can make this whole process way easier. With version tracking and task assignment, you can easily see all the changes made along the way. Automatic notifications mean no more chasing for progress reports — while Github and Jira integrations streamline the conversation not just between team members but between their favorite tools, too. Fancy taking it for a spin? Give it a try for free today.
Release notes are often overlooked but are an essential aspect of software development, providing invaluable information to users about changes, improvements, and bug fixes. By providing detailed and concise information about each release, developers can communicate with their users and maintain transparency, ultimately helping to build trust and confidence in their product.