What Is Changelog & How To Write A Good One?

When you are a small team, bringing your ideas to life – you will have emphatic focus on the development part. And more often than not, documentation will be an afterthought. That, is the nature of most software development teams.

But as your software product gets off the ground, you feel the need to be a bit more organised. Otherwise it will become near impossible to collaborate with your growing team.

That is when the customer feedback starts to flow in. Your colleagues from marketing & sales team are relaying the objections they heard. Your product roadmap is now taking up a nice shape. You start to iterate and build on what matters & peel off that doesn’t.

But when you look back, it is too difficult to see where you are coming from. Because the evolution of your software is not documented anywhere.

This is where changelogs (or change logs) come in. They act as a bridge between the current version of your software product & its past. When written effectively, this powerful tool can build credibility and confidence. Among your team members as well as customers.

Here is a brief article on how to write an effective changelog for your software product. Along with some considerations and warnings.

What Is A Changelog & Why Is It Important?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “changelog” but aren’t quite sure what it is. Simply put, changelog is a documented record of all the changes that a software undergoes. These changes are chronologically recorded for users to easily spot the evolution of the product.

Changelogs Vs Release Notes

Sometimes, people confuse release notes with changelogs. But they aren’t quite the same thing.

Release notes are documents giving a wordy description about the release of a new version for a service or product. They usually contain detailed information about the changes as well as their impact on the end users. They will even serve as a quick guide or user manual.

But, changelogs are terse & to the point. They are lists of additions, removals & changes to the software. They mean more for the team that develops the software than the customers. At times, they will also contain some technical details that are not relevant for the end users.

In other words, release notes use more comprehensive language for explaining what has changed or hasn’t changed. Yet, changelogs are less verbose & more technical oriented.

Here are 4 tips to help you write an effective changelog.

Use Reverse Chronology

This is the most important one. Be sure that the latest versions are placed first. Consider that rarely your audience will be interested in looking at what happened years ago. It is always the latest changes that interest most of us.

Doing this will not only help your readers but also market the fact that you are constantly improving the product. That there is a steady paced development team supporting the software.

Here is a snapshot from Confluence cloud changelog.

Do Proper Formatting

Avoid long sentences and paragraphs. Keep your audience engaged by visual formatting.

This entails using headings, subheadings and bullets. This will make your changelog reader-friendly. Consider writing it down in markdown or markup. Carefully weave the content using italics, bold text and code fences if they’re required.

Breaking down the changelog into multiple visual parts is even more critical for projects with several components.

Grab Their Attention Early

Consider that most people are in a hurry these days, besides having a very short attention span.

Thus, highlight different types of changes with various visuals. Many teams rely on colored lozenges to achieve this. Different colors can mean different components, types of changes or even pricing plans the changes impact. It could be anything, as long as it makes sense for your audience.

Provide Additional Details

While the changelogs are not verbose, they shouldn’t prevent a curious reader from knowing more.

Always provide links to detailed blog posts, videos etc. It is not uncommon to see a link ‘Know more’ at the bottom of an item in the changelog. Heck, even pointing the users to comprehensive release notes should be ok.

Some teams publish names of the developers who contributed to this change. Again, use the space creatively & make your changelog colorful.

Quick Tips

  • Always include complete history. This lets your changelog serve as a historical reference. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the changelog is just being used for the latest updates.
  • Include the “when” for each of the updates. This is helpful if a bug should be found several months following an update being installed.
  • Be sure to note anything that was changed, added, removed, fixed or deprecated as well as any breaking changes.
  • Never assume anything, such as users knowing about the name of a module.
  • Add sufficient white space so that your changelog doesn’t look busy.
  • Include a summary—This makes your changelog much easier to understand and takes minimal effort.
  • Group changes of the same type together. This makes your changelog more readable and organized.
  • Use one-word categories for describing the kind of changes made.
  • Don’t forget to update deprecations—You need to inform your users if your project’s latest version includes breaking changes. Also, be sure to list any removals.
  • Don’t use a commit log diff as a changelog.
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