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How To Create Better Release Notes

Tips on how to make a release notes document more effective.

Whenever you launch a new piece of software or release a new update for your customers, it’s common to write a “release notes” document. But what makes a release notes document effective? How can you make sure that your customers actually want to read your notes, and how can you leave a better impression on them?

What Are “Better” Release Notes?

First, what does it mean to have better release notes in place? What makes one set of release notes better than another?

As you can imagine, there’s some room for subjectivity here. But for the most part, we are all for release notes that are:

  • Interesting. For most applications, release notes aren’t very exciting. But you need to make your release notes at least passably interesting; otherwise, your customers aren’t going to be seeing or reading them.
  • Readable. Your release notes also need to be readable and understandable. They’re not going to serve much of a purpose if your users struggle to understand what you’re trying to say or if they can’t even get through the document.
  • Entertaining. Ideally, your release notes will provide at least some entertainment value. That doesn’t mean you have to transform into a clown; it just means you should occasionally deviate from the dry and straightforward language that causes most users to tune out from reading release notes.
  • Memorable. You also want your release notes to be memorable, at least in some way. You want your users to remember that this is software that gets updated regularly and meaningfully.

General Strategies for Better Release Notes

These strategies will help you develop better release notes for all your releases:

  • Read examples of other release notes. Take a look at release notes from a wide variety of different developers and different products. It’s the best way to get a feel for what styles of writing work effectively and what styles fall flat. It’s also a great way to learn different strategies that emerge in different niches – and determine if any of those strategies might be valuable for your own brand. The more you read and the more familiar you become with different approaches, the better your perspective on release note development will be.
  • Start with the high-level value. When writing the introduction to your release notes or beginning a new section, start with the high-level value. What is valuable about the changes that you made, and what should be the biggest takeaways for the average consumer? Most people aren’t going to delve into all the details; they just want an overview of what changed and why it changed. You can dig into more of the details later.
  • Maintain your personality. Too often, software developers and marketers adopt a dry, stuffy style when writing things like release notes. But it’s usually better to maintain some semblance of your personality, writing in a natural way and leveraging your own unique voice. This makes release notes much more engaging, and much more memorable.
  • Eliminate jargon. Release notes are often too technical for the average user to understand. That’s because they’re laden with jargon and technical terms that your users aren’t familiar with. Instead, use plain language to describe what you changed and why you changed it. If you’re concerned about the comprehension level or technical experience of your audience, write your notes as if you’re explaining them to a young child (without being condescending, of course).
  • Explain your motivation. Consider adding your motivation for making changes when introducing your new changes. It’s a great way to set the stage and add context to the discussion. It will also help users get in your mindset – and make it easier for them to relate to developers.
  • Organize changes by section. Keep your release notes as organized as possible. Your changes should be segmented into sections, based on the area in which the changes were applied and the types of users who are affected. It’s going to make your notes much easier to comprehend and more “skimmable” for users in a hurry.
  • Keep it concise. There’s no need to elaborate at length for most points. Instead, try to keep things as concise and straightforward as possible.
  • Use visuals whenever possible. Most human beings are visual learners. It’s much faster and more intuitive to learn something through an image or a video than it is to process written words. Accordingly, try to spice up your release notes with screenshots, videos, and other visual aids.

You don’t have to be a technical wizard, nor do you have to be an incredibly talented writer to put together a good set of release notes. As long as you’re conscientious about what you’re writing, and you’re genuinely trying to make the user experience of reading release notes better, you’re going to be better off than when you started.

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