Why Writing Good Release Notes Matters

Why Writing Good Release Notes Matters

You probably see a lot of these.

Windows Update Notification

They keep showing up when you least expect them and often won't take no for an answer.

macOS update popup without No option

No matter if you're on your desktop or phone, you can see new updates waiting for you almost every day. Sometimes they're marked with a red badge, to indicate urgency. Other ones try to make you install them by accident.

Updates Waiting to Be Installed

For some reason, everyone's trying to get you to update to the latest version.

Getting Users to Update Is Worth It

And of course, they have a lot of good reasons for that.

The less people use old versions of an app, the easier it is to provide support.

Imagine people calling you about issues they're having with your app that you fixed a few months ago. Yeah, they're on one of the old versions.

Every user who installs the latest update reduces that chance.

Also, the more people install new versions of your app, the more valuable feedback you'll get.

Even if you build a great new feature, it's useless until people start using it. And to do that, they first need to install an update.

It's easy to push updates to the users in web apps, but for desktop and mobile... it's tough.

People Don't Just Update

The problem is that everyone's responsible for updating software on their devices. Unless you give them a good reason to do that, they'll often postpone it for as long as they can.

You probably experienced that yourself. These update popups like to show up just when you sit down in front of your computer, trying to do some work.

You open one of your tools and boom.

Adobe XD asking to update

Do I really need to do this now? It's not important, is it? I'll do it later.

Or sometimes even

Oh no, no way I'm installing it. They'll break something again with this update.

Then when you commute back home, you see a red badge on the App Store icon. It'd be great to finally fix that, but there's no WiFi in here and my battery's dying. Later

Very often people are just too busy to update.

Even though it's a simple process, it still requires their attention. Once they agree to install the update, they'll have to wait until it downloads, installs and often until the app restarts. It's just like installing a new app.

In an age when everything is instant, these few minutes can be a huge commitment. Unless you give them a good reason to do that, they'll try to avoid it as much as possible.

So, is there any way you convince them to do that? There's a bit of room for that in the release notes.

Generic Release Notes Don't Help

Release notes are the one thing that people see when they make the decision whether to install an update.

No matter how you distribute your app updates, publishing a note that describes what was changed is your chance to convince more people to install it.

Generic release notes in the App Store

Many companies fail to use this mechanism well and settle for generic messages.

"Bug fixes", "Security Updates" or "Improvements" don't seem like anything worth your time. They don't tell anything about what's inside and therefore don't help their users to make a decision whether to update.

You can do better than that.

Tell Them What They'll Get

People don't really care about the fact that there's an update. What's important to them is what they'll get after they install it.

Does It Fix a Bug? Which one?

When releasing bugfixes, it's okay to admit what didn't work correctly. Some of your users encountered that issue anyway.

Slack communicating bugfixes

They may be waiting for a fix, especially if the bug makes their work more difficult or even prevents them from using the app.

Once they know that the fix has arrived, they'll be more than happy to update.

Does It Fix a Security Issue?

If the update fixes an important security issue, tell your users what can happen if they don't install it.

Will someone be able to hijack their account? Steal their money or access private information?

Tell them that! They do care about it.

Introducing a New Feature?

If the update contains a new feature, no matter how small it is, it's worth adding a few words about it instead of the generic "various improvements".

Trello introducing a new feature

You don't need to do a huge press release when you add a few new keyboard shortcuts to the app, but a lot of your users may really care about it.

The sooner they learn about it the better for them.

Keep It Short and Precise

People see release notes only for a short moment, until they decide what to do next with the update.

Make sure it's easy for them to quickly scan through the list of changes.

Using bullet points, short sentences and marking what was added and what was fixed will help a lot. People don't read these notes for fun, so make sure they're to the point.

Getting People to Update Is Hard, Do It Right

Companies put a lot of effort to convince their users to install the latest updates.

When doing that, don't ignore release notes. People see them when making decision about updating and you can use that to show them what's in the update for them.

In the end, that's what they care about.

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