Release notes, for lack of a better term, are treated as an afterthought and a chore that needs to be carried out to close the product development cycle. This approach leads to the last-minute rush to string bits and pieces together & produce the release notes. Once the document full of technical jargon, complex explanations & sloppy screenshots is ready and the “release notes” box is checked, product managers and the team breathe easy – as they can now mark the development cycle closed.
In another world, however, Release notes offer product managers a novel way of engaging with customers. Inevitably release notes will keep the customers excited about product updates and inform them of what to expect. Hence requiring a better approach while creating them.
For release notes, the expectation is not that the writing would be as good as the Shakespeare or Kipling. After all, Release notes writing may or may not be the expertise area of the individual who writes release notes in your team. However, product managers can still achieve stellar results by keeping an eye on release notes best practices.
7 Release Notes Best Practices
Product managers shouldn’t aim to come up with ‘perfect’ release notes but at the same time should not accept a ‘mediocrity’ filled release notes document. Thus, we focus only on 7 best practices for release notes writing despite existence of numerous areas of ‘best practices’.
1. Start with the relevant
The definition of relevance changes based on the target audience. Not everyone needs to know about everything – that’s where product managers should distinguish between different variants of the release notes content. They should make it possible for Business stakeholders to easily scan the release notes & gauge the value customers are getting out of the update. While another variant of the release notes document should focus solely on the customers to help them navigate the changes in your product.
2. Unwavering user focus
Keeping user needs at the core of release notes helps product managers relate to their needs and write (or refine) engaging updates. Clarity is critical, and product folks need to stay big; tech-focused blocks of text should be at a minimum (or relegated to help pages) unless your product is meant for the tech-focused blokes. Product managers should also keep in mind that majority of the Web and mobile users scan instead of reading, and the release notes content should be conducive for that. The explanations should be short and straightforward but not vague.
3. Use visual aids
Long walls of text, no matter how well structured, can induce fatigue soon. Adding visual cues like screenshots, images, or videos – can improve comprehension and insight. A seasoned release-notes writer can eschew a lengthy explanation in favor of a short GIF that shows what users are expected to do. Here are some examples of release notes showing how different yet effective they can be.
4. Keep notes in an orderly fashion
A central repository of notes becomes useless if the notes are just dumped on the webpage. Users tend to get numb when they encounter a wall of text. Keeping individual notes on separate clickable links and elegantly formatting the document with segments, subheadings, drop-downs, paragraph breaks, and more – will get them to read. More the number of release notes you produce, better should be the navigation, filtering & ease of access.
5. End with technical details
Using straightforward language in release notes makes them easily understandable, and people can quickly grasp what is being communicated. But this does not mean that product managers should do away with technical terms altogether – users, especially admins at large corporations, need to know what the product can do and what kind of impact they have on the end goal. Again, be mindful of your target audience.
6. Promoting the brand and product, unobtrusively
Release notes can be used to promote the brand and product messaging, but overdoing it with heavy self-promotion can erode a customer’s trust. The words used for this promotion need to be reviewed first – otherwise, the chance of overpromising and under delivering can become rampant. Keep in mind, release notes should not turn into a sales pitch. That is why we ranked ‘Unwavering customer focus’ higher.
7. Use relevant release notes templates
Once product managers identify what works & what does not with different sets of audiences, they should create reusable release notes templates. This will mean that there’s no need to start from scratch every time. These templates can then be refined on an ongoing basis to easily delegate or distribute the release notes creation process. If possible, introduce some sort of release notes automation to take the workload off the team’s shoulder. Some release management tools can help you manage the process of software release and delivery.
How to distribute release notes?
Above best practices only prepare product managers for writing relevant, engaging & useful release notes. However, distribution of release notes also has an impact on how they are received by the target audience.
First & foremost, they should be distributed in a way they are easily accessible. That’s why product managers should rely on various methods of release notes distribution that are suitable for the target audience –
Emails directly communicate updates to the stakeholders and are more suitable where less personalization is not a problem. Emails also work well when the updates are not exhaustive and lengthy.
Blog posts potentially can convey more information than a standard email can. Links to these blog posts can be shared with the target group via other channels such as support chat etc. The effort required to create this will be more than the email format, however these are more comprehensive.
Social media provides a great way to highlight features and generate interest in new features. These posts’ visual or transient nature dictates they highlight one or two points and direct users to blog posts or the release pages.
With these best practices, product managers can easily engage the release notes readers. To top it up, pay attention to the distribution channel & you have mastered the recipe for success. We leave you with 50 release notes examples to inspire you in your release notes production journey.