How to Write Helpful Release Notes (+Examples, Tips, Tools)
For many, release notes are extremely technical documents that are drawn up by developers for developers. However, if you take a user-centric approach to release notes, it provides an opportunity to drive awareness of new features and showcase the value of your product.
What Are Release Notes?
Release notes are a type of technical documentation created to keep users informed about updates to a product. Sometimes called changelogs, release notes are distributed right after an update is released to let users know about new features, changes to existing features, new feature launches, known issues, and bug fixes.
These notes are shared with users to let them know how changes to a product will affect them and explain any adjustments they may need to make based on those changes. For example, if a product update includes a new third-party integration, the release notes will mention that integration and either explain how to use it or include links that direct users to further instructions.
The Importance of Release Notes
Release notes play a significant role in creating a high-quality user experience. They show users you’ve listened to feedback and are taking steps to improve their experience. When done right, release notes function as an effective communication channel and can be a great way to engage customers and users.
Here are five ways you can focus on your audience’s needs in your release notes:
- Explain why your users should care about the work you’ve been doing to the product.
- Become a single source of truth for product changes, so your users don’t have to search for information regarding new updates.
- Make your customers aware of any adjustments to your product’s functionality. You don’t want to surprise your users when you change how your product works.
- Provide additional value to your users by announcing new product features.
- Use the opportunity to send non-sales-related messages. Customers appreciate it when you keep them in the loop.
Who Writes the Release Notes?
Traditionally, this task has fallen to developers or technical writers, giving release notes a reputation for being dry and boring. Instead, get your entire team involved.
Create more effective, useful release notes that benefit your customers by working cross-functionally to make sure your notes include all the nitty-gritty technical information but are simple to understand for end-users.
To collaborate effectively, first have your developers, engineers, and other technical teams make a list of improvements, bug fixes, and known technical issues. Then, touch base with your product and CX teams to find out which issues from your feedback have been resolved. Once that’s complete, your marketing team can write your notes and smooth out any jargon to improve readability.
Before you publish, get everyone together to read your draft, so you can spot omissions and errors and make adjustments before pushing them out.
What to Include in Your Release Notes
The goal of release notes is to educate your users on product changes, so they should focus on the new advancements to your product. Your notes can be as complex or as simple as you’d like, and they should match your company’s brand voice or have their own style.
At a minimum, the following details should be included in your release notes:
- A release version number and/or the release date
- Overview that includes a description of what is in your release notes
- Summary of any issue and changes you’ve made to your product, such as fixes, improvements, new features, and enhancements
- Known bugs that haven’t been fixed, especially those on your roadmap
- Any impact that these updates or improvements will have on end-user and admins, especially when it comes to technical aspects of a product
5 Tips for Creating Successful Release Notes
Release notes don’t have to be difficult to write. You can apply a few useful tips to make them more interesting, enjoyable, and helpful for your users. You should also look to properly distribute these changelogs to help users adopt new features and updates by driving visibility to these changes.
Here are five helpful tips to write, publish, and promote effective and useful release notes:
1. Distribute across multiple channels
To maximize user awareness of your product’s changes, distribute your release notes on your social media accounts, your website, through email, across your communities, inside your app — anywhere users might look for quick updates about your product.
Above: Example of Ahrefs driving awareness to its new product updates by using a banner across the top of its application.
Go into more detail about specific parts of your update on your website, product landing page, or community forum, or blog, and then link out to those pages to keep your release notes from getting too long.
Above: Example of a blog that we here at Whatfix published that goes into more detail on the release notes surrounding a new product update. Drive users to these more in-depth release note documents to provide helpful documentation on new updates and features.
2. Use in-app messaging
Making release notes available inside your product using in-app messaging such as tooltips or pop-ups creates higher visibility, giving users a better chance of adopting them in a timely manner.
Above: Notion used an in-app popup to showcase a new sketching feature to its users.
The earlier you present your notes, the better — if your tech allows, display your update messages right after users log in to make sure they see them and start to explore their viability.
Above: Drift drives awareness of its release notes by displaying a CTA to its product updates blog when users sign in.
If your product lacks the support to create native in-app messaging or doesn’t have the development support to create these UX elements, consider implementing a digital adoption platform such as Whatfix.
With Whatfix for product managers, create no-code product flows, interactive guidance, tooltips, and popup windows that grab users’ attention and direct them to new updates or features, in the flow of work.
3. Add product screenshots, videos, and GIFs
Include visual aids such as videos, GIFs, and screenshots to add visual aspects to your release notes, allowing you to walk users through more complex information in an easier-to-understand way.
Above: How Canva uses screenshots of its new features in its release notes product blog.
Screenshots are helpful for highlighting a single item such as an overview of a page, while GIFs should be used to illustrate a multi-step process.
4. Group updates into categories
Properly categorizing the content of your release notes makes it easier for your users to quickly pinpoint the information that’s most relevant. Release notes are easier to absorb when they’re divided into sections and more manageable to browse. Keep in mind that some users may be looking for product fixes, while others may want to learn about new features. Categorizing your content makes reading easier for all of your users.
5. Include jump link menus
Jump link menus allow users to select an item from a navigation menu and go directly to a specific section in your release notes.
Above: Here at Whatfix, we categorize our release notes by quarter, as well as by type (as seen on the right-side navigation bar in the screenshot above.) We also use jump links across our release notes blog to help our customers find any relevant information easily.
These menus are easy to set up and assist your users by helping them find the information they’re looking for quickly. For example, you can create anchors for each category in your main menu, and when a user clicks on it, the page will auto-scroll to that section.
5 Examples of Helpful Release Notes to Use as Inspiration
It can be difficult to take in all of the advice on release notes when you’re just starting out, but you can find inspiration by studying examples. Here are some stellar release notes you can look to for ideas.
1. SaaS product Poptin uses a website pop-up to promote its release notes
Poptin enlists the help of a popup modal that’s accessible from the main navigation on its website. To get access to the latest changes to the SaaS tool, a user clicks on the “What’s New” menu item and the modal pops up on the screen.
Above: Poptin promotes its latest changes with a modal popup window on its homepage.
Each new change is listed separately, and once clicked on, more detailed information about that change appears in the same modal. This type of display makes locating and reading release notes extremely convenient for users because they can find the information without having to navigate through multiple pages of information.
2. Calendar assistant Reclaim.ai uses a blog format powered by LaunchNotes for its release notes
Powered by LaunchNotes, Reclaim’s release notes are displayed in an easy-to-read blog format and include feature releases, bug fixes, and recent improvements to its SaaS-based calendar assistant.
Above: Reclaim.ai uses a product updates blog to publish and promote its release notes.
For ease of navigation, it has a tab on top for announcements and another for its roadmaps. It also includes a monthly archive on the right and category tags on the left, so users can find information on a specific topic without having to manually search inside previous release notes.
3. Whatfix uses GIFs on its release notes community hub
At Whatfix, we display our release notes on a subdomain and use an accordion-style navigation menu on the left side of the page to make it easy for users to learn about our updates. We also liberally use screenshots and GIFs to pique user interest and to go into more detail about our updates without taking up a lot of room on the page.
We also mark our latest notes with a yellow “update” tag, so users can find our latest news at a quick glance.
4. Notion uses a “what’s new” landing page for its release notes
Notion unsurprisingly uses its own product to publish its release notes. It posts its notes as a “What’s New” page that can be accessed in the footer of the website.
A minimalist style helps keep the focus on the information in the notes, but it includes GIFs and screenshots that are marked up to highlight the information it wants users to understand.
5. GoodRx uses humor in its release notes on the app store
Prescription discount finder GoodRx takes an outside-the-box approach by injecting humor into its release notes. This makes them fun to read and avoids coming across as too technical.
Its corporate brand voice doesn’t match its irreverent writing style, but GoodRx makes it work by consistently using this tone in its in-app updates.
6. Motorsports Games uses Twitter to promote its release notes for new game patches
Game development Motorsports Games uses Twitter as a hub for driving awareness of new game patches and release notes for its NASCAR Ignition game.
The developer then links its website where it has a section on a support subdomain dedicated to all patch notes and updates. Its release notes also include tags to showcase which updates are for Playstation, Xbox, and PC users.
Finally, the company uses a CTA at the top of its release notes to encourage users to follow its official Twitter to be alerted when new patches go live.
5 Best Tools for Writing & Publishing Release Notes in 2022
There are several tools that specialize in helping teams create release notes. These five are some of the best release notes software that will help get you on the right track.
ReleaseNotes.io is a changelog tool that allows teams to host release notes on a dedicated site and add embeddable modals and banners for higher visibility. It also offers an option to push updates to users through an email mailing list. One notable feature it offers is the ability to set a modal window to open automatically if there are any new product updates.
Cost: It offers a Standard plan for $19 per month and a Pro plan for $39 per month, plus an additional $10 a month for every 1,000 ReleaseNotes subscribers.
LaunchNotes is a dedicated release notes publishing tool geared toward fast and flexible distribution. Its advanced integrations generate release note formats for multiple mediums, including email, embeddable widgets, and Slack workspaces. Using its tool, you can publish your release notes, changelog, and “what’s new” blog in one place. Users can also subscribe to these Medium-style posts for any new updates.
Cost: Pricing is separated into two categories with two tiers for external and internal communications. Public Release is $24 a month for individuals and $249 a month for larger PR teams. Private Release software includes internal management tools for larger firms and starts at $299 a month.
Notion is a collaborative workspace platform that can be customized to host release notes. Its extreme flexibility and its low cost make it a great value for startup companies on a budget or who are just starting out. Its extensive template library includes release note templates that speed up the process of creating and publishing your document.
Cost: Notion offers four pricing tiers — a free Personal plan, a $4 a month Personal Pro plan, an $8 per user per month Team plan, and an Enterprise plan that requires you to contact Notion for pricing information.
AnnounceKit can be integrated inside your platform to display in-app product updates, and you can set up a dedicated feed on a standalone page to keep a record of your past announcements. It’s a great tool if you have an international audience because it can create posts in multiple languages and produce translations.
Cost: Pricing for AnnounceKit’s tools starts at $49 a month and scales up to $249 for access to its main feature set. For Enterprise plans with custom scripting support and app integrations, contact the sales team.
Hellonext manages changelogs, product roadmaps, and collects feedback in one place. Product updates can be written and posted in real-time through a widget that’s embedded inside your product, but updates can be shared individually as well.
Cost: Plans start at $12 and increase to $50 for its standard features. Large firms may contact Hellonext’s sales team for enterprise solutions tailored to their needs.
When you’re crafting your release notes, stick with simple, plain language and skip any heavy technical jargon. Remember, you’re writing for humans, and tech-speak can get in the way of delivering your message. Connect with your customers on a deeper level by getting creative with your release notes — inserting a little personality can go a long way toward creating more faithful users.