A Definitive Guide to Release Notes (aka Changelogs)

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Introduction

Are you a movie buff?
When was the last time you saw a movie that you really liked & then thought why didn’t I hear about this before?

Most likely, the answer was that the movie was not adequately promoted, or it was promoted, but not to the right audience.

Those teasers & trailers in the world of cinema, are equivalent of Release notes in the world of software development.

For the most part, this analogy works great. However, it starts falling apart when we think of release notes as a one-time activity at the time of product launch.
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Or, imagine owning a Tesla but not getting any intimations about over the air updates that are being consistently added to the car.

You wouldn’t even know that these new cool things exist.

That’s another reason why Release notes (also called as Changelogs or Product updates) are important.
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In this article, we are going to dive deep into such nuances & more. 

Sure, there will be some theory around the fundamental concepts. But we have also included numerous practical insights that you can apply today in your work.

So, grab a cup of coffee, turn off all the distractions & start internalizing a vital element of Software development process.

Release notes!

What are releases notes?

Or what is changelog?

In the traditional sense, release notes are documents that accompany a product launch or a product update. 

But broadly speaking (& based on our experience), release notes are a medium to communicate changes in your product to various stakeholders.
In which case, they may not be limited to being a simple word document. 

So, release notes can be an email to your customers, a presentation to your business folks, an internal release note to the support team, a video on your social channels & more. 

That’s the beginning!

Start treating release notes as more than a technical document & use them for achieving multiple goals. 

We even advocate using release notes for product marketing!

Release notes or Changelog?

But, are release notes & changelogs different or both refer to the same thing?

Unfortunately, there is no black & white answer to this. It is more about linguistics than anything else. While we think there are some differences between the two, both these terms are (mostly) used interchangeably in the real world.

How do you spell? Is it Changelog vs Change log? For us, both refer to the same artefact.

So henceforth in this article, we use all the three terms – release notes, changelog & change log – as referring to the same thing.

Importance of release notes (or changelog)


Continuing with our ‘movie’ analogy, imagine executing the task of delivering a box office blockbuster without any promotional activity!

That’s insane, you’ll say!

Now consider the same scenario but for an upcoming product upgrade. Will you be able to deliver the user activation product OKRs without the changelogs?

Answer is an emphatic No.

That is the importance of release notes. 

If you continue to consider this product update document as an afterthought, you will run the risk of not getting sufficient engagement with your product & the ensuing updates.

We’ve written in detail about the importance of release notes for product managers, if that topic interests you.

Role of release notes (or Changelogs) in agile development


Agile emphasizes iterative development & frequent releases.

Naturally, release notes play a crucial role in sustaining transparency and communication among all stakeholders. 

Release notes serve as a concise summary of product updates, ensuring that team members, customers, and other stakeholders are aware of the progress and impact of each iteration. 

These documented product updates help in setting clear expectations, facilitating feedback, and promoting a shared understanding of the product’s evolution. 

By providing a documented history of changes, Changelogs also support continuous improvement, enabling teams to track their progress, identify patterns, and make data-driven decisions.

Types of release notes (aka Changelogs)


Release notes can be classified based on several criteria. 

For example, the type of release they represent or the format in which they are created or even the stakeholder persona for which they are written. 

We will set the background with this topic & then move on to talk about some best practices in the subsequent section.

By-type-of-release

By type of release

Major vs Minor

If the changelog is created for a major release, it may have a different structure & content as compared to a changelog meant for a minor release.

Feature vs Patch

Same holds true for release notes written for a feature release vs a patch release. The patch release notes will be smaller in comparison & may be added as a footnote. Whereas a feature release note will include all the important details & impacted areas for various audiences.

By-format

By format

Email

When you are publishing your changelog in the form of a periodic newsletter, the email format makes a lot of sense.  

PDF

If the intent is to keep the product updates documented for posterity, you will end up relying on a format such as PDF.

Presentations

It’s a novel way to engage the stakeholders without directing a lengthy, textual release notes their way. We have written about making release notes presentation ready here.

In-app widgets

It is a common practice to attract attention of the product users. Just embed your release notes right inside of your product, as interactive widgets.

By-stakeholder persona

By stakeholder persona

Customers

For customers, your changelog content will be more impact driven. E.g. in case of architectural improvements, the number of changes may be large but their customer facing impact will be minimal. Leading to a small release notes document.

Support team

If a widely requested bug fix is going live in the upcoming release, it is imperative that your customer facing support team is made aware of this improvement through the change log.

Marketing team

There is a major enhancement rolling out that places your product ahead of the competition. Of course, marketing team should be part of that product update communication.

By-type-of-software

By type of software

Desktop applications

For desktop applications, release notes typically include detailed information about new features, bug fixes, and performance improvements. They are often accessible via the application’s help menu or website, ensuring that users can easily find and understand the changes.

Mobile applications

Mobile apps, on the other hand, require concise and user-friendly product updates. Given the limited space in app stores, this content should highlight key areas and benefits to encourage users to download the latest version.

SaaS products

For Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products, release notes are often delivered through in-app notifications, email newsletters, and dedicated web pages to ensure comprehensive coverage. Read on to know more about best practices for SaaS changelogs.

Open-source software

Open-source software release notes are usually more technical, providing detailed descriptions of code changes, new features, and bug fixes. 

Contributors and developers rely on these notes to understand the evolution of the project and to contribute effectively. Clear documentation and links to detailed changelogs or commit histories are crucial for this audience.

The types of release notes we have outlined above is just a small subset of possibilities. But all of them should aim to clearly communicate the value of updates, address the needs of their target audience & ensure easy accessibility. 

Tailoring release notes to the specific context and user base of the software ensures they are informative, engaging, and useful.

Best practices for writing changelogs (or Release notes)

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Release notes should be an integral part of your customer engagement strategy.

Here are few tips to write the best version of changelogs that will get you good engagement from the target audience.

  • Include only the relevant details
  • Keep the content user-centric
  • Engage better with visuals
  • Encourage consumption with a better structure
  • Make room for technical details

Check out our detailed best practices for writing release notes.

Not just the content, the process of writing the change log is of equal importance. Below, we talk about few key areas to get the changelog writing process right every time.

Collaborative writing & team efforts in release notes writing

Who should write release notes (or Changelogs)? That’s a question for eternity.

But one thing is clear, writing effective release notes is a collaborative effort. With each team member contributing their unique expertise for best results. 

Successful changelogs are the product of a well-coordinated team effort involving developers, product managers, technical writers, customer support teams & more.

  • Developers can provide the technical details and context behind the updates.
  • Product managers bridge the gap between developers and other non-technical stakeholders. Their perspective tries to focus on benefits of the changes coming through.
  • Technical writers organize the release notes into a well-structured and easy to understand document.
  • Feedback from Customer support teams help in highlighting the most relevant updates & coming up with a customer-centric changelog document.

To help the humans throughout this process, collaboration tools like shared documents, project management software, and release notes (or changelog) software are useful. 

In conclusion, writing effective release notes is a team effort that requires collaboration of the entire team.

Adapting release notes (or changelog) for global audiences


It is imperative to consider the tastes & cultural sensitivities of the target audience to get better engagement with the product update document.

Here are a few tips in that regard –

  • Start by translating the release notes into primary languages spoken by your user base
  • Be mindful of time zones & regional release schedules (or feature flags)
  • Adapt images, videos to suit different cultural contexts

Legal & compliance considerations for release notes

This is often an overlooked area, especially teams that are just getting started with change log writing & distribution. 

We are listing down a few tips for this below –

  • Be up front about any changes related to data privacy & security
  • Put checks in place to avoid (inadvertently) disclosing sensitive information 
  • Stay away from misleading or false statements about the product capabilities
  • Include disclaimers & limitations of liability clauses
  • Be mindful of intellectual property rights, offer credits wherever due

Consider these points & you will safeguard your organization from potential legal pitfalls, originating out of a seemingly harmless change log document.

Common mistakes to avoid in the release notes (aka changelogs)


If you are just getting started with the changelog writing process, avoid below common mistakes: 

  • Making the change log content too technical
  • While brevity is essential, being too vague can confuse users
  • Lengthy release notes can overwhelm users avoid that temptation
  • Even the best release notes are useless if users can’t find them easily

Avoid these mistakes & the resulting changelog will be informative, user-friendly, and easily accessible. Consequently, enhancing user engagement and satisfaction.

For a more in-depth understanding of mistakes to avoid while writing release notes, read this.

Examples of effective changelogs (or release notes)

Examples-of-effective-changelogs-infographic2-1

Effective release notes can significantly enhance user engagement and product adoption. Here are some examples from our extensive collection of 55 release notes (or changelog) examples to inspire you:

  1. Slack: Concise & humorous, Slack’s release notes are a treat to read. Their changelog uses a bullet points format and focuses on highlighting new features, improvements, and bug fixes. Ability to quickly scan the content is one of the key takeaways from their approach.
  2. Spotify: Spotify changelog content is a mix of technical updates and user-friendly explanations. Starting with a brief, engaging summary their release notes then dive into more detailed changes.
  3. Atlassian: Catering to both technical and non-technical audiences, Atlassian’s release notes are thorough and well-structured. Inclusion of links to relevant documentation is a useful feature of their content.
  4. Dropbox: Following their product’s UX philosophy, Dropbox uses a clear, straightforward format for their changelogs. 
  5. Trello: Matching with their upbeat branding & tone of voice, Trello’s release notes are visually appealing, incorporating images and GIFs to demonstrate new features. Their focus is on explaining how updates benefit the user.

Studying these changelog examples, is a great start to become more effective in your own changelog management.

Why automate release notes (or changelogs)

If you’ve followed the examples above, you will note certain patterns. And one of the obvious ways to reproduce those patterns is using changelog templates & automation.

Here’s why you should consider changelog automation:

  • Time savings: Teams with frequent updates can easily feel trapped in the time-consuming & manual creation of changelogs. Automation addresses the challenge by freeing up valuable time for all stakeholders.
  • Consistency and accuracy: Machines are better equipped to reproduce the consistent formatting, over & over again. By pulling data directly from your version control system or project management tools, you reduce the risk of human error and ensure that all changes are captured accurately.
  • Improved communication: Changelog automation can help customize the content to target different audiences - such as developers, product managers, end-users etc. This ensures that each group receives only the relevant information.
  • Scalability: As your product grows, so does the complexity of your updates. Change log automation can easily scale with your product, handling large volumes of changes without additional effort.

In conclusion, change log automation not only saves time and ensures accuracy but also enhances communication, user engagement, and scalability.

Tools & software for managing release notes (aka changelogs)


As the reach & spread of release notes grows, relying on generic tools such as shared spreadsheets & documents starts to become an obstacle. 

That is when the need to use a tailored release notes or changelog software becomes important. You can study more about the trusted changelog tools here.

One key element of these release notes tools should be their ability to generate the final document in various formats & distribute it across channels where your audience can be engaged. For example, check out these Confluence release notes designs that can serve this purpose.

Using analytics to measure effectiveness of your release notes (or changelogs)


Contrary to what many assume, engagement with release notes or changelogs can be quantified. 

To guarantee that the release notes are achieving their intended purpose, use analytics to measure their effectiveness

Start by tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) such as open rates, click-through rates, and engagement metrics if you distribute your release notes via email. 

Tools like Google Analytics help you in finding out the quantity & quality of user interactions such as page views, time spent on the page, and bounce rates.

In-app release notes widget analytics are equally important, if not more. 

Monitor how often users view the changelog widget within your application and track interactions with embedded links or videos. 

This data can help you understand which updates are most relevant and engaging to your audience.

User feedback is another valuable source of information. 

Encourage user feedback such as reactions or comments to gather direct input on the usefulness of your release notes. Internalize this feedback and guide the future changelog writing process.

If possible, try to measure the impact of a well written changelog on user behavior. 

Seek trends in user activity or adoption rates of new features after change log is published. These trends can potentially tell you how well the product updates are driving engagement and serving users well.

By leveraging these analytics, you can continually refine your release notes to better meet the needs of your audience and enhance overall product communication.

AI Power in release notes (or changelogs)


With the advent of generative AI e.g. ChatGPT, future of release notes is set to evolve & influence user expectations.

Personalization is an emerging trend. Tailoring changelog to individual user preferences and behaviors will enhance relevance and engagement. 

For instance, users might receive updates that specifically highlight features they frequently use or have shown interest in.

Interactive and multimedia-rich changelogs will become more common. 

Incorporating videos, GIFs, and interactive elements can make these product update documents more engaging and easier to understand, especially for complex updates.

In-app notifications and contextual change logs will take off due to the seamless user experience they have to offer. 

We think, the future of release notes will focus on automation, personalization, multimedia integration, AI-driven drafts & insights to create a audience-centric experience.

The last word

Remember, well-crafted change logs are more than just a list of changes. They’re an opportunity to engage with stakeholders, showcase product’s evolution, and reinforce your team’s commitment to continuous improvement.

Further reading

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