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The Complete Guide to Release Notes: What are They and What are They Used For?

Release notes are now a very important part of selling and marketing software products to help users make the most of the software with every update.

However, writing great release notes can be challenging. Even the smallest changes in your product can result in big troubles if they are not communicated properly.

While the goal of publishing your release notes is to improve user experience and delight your users, without careful consideration, it’ll be counterproductive, and you’ll risk confusing and frustrating your users instead.

In this complete guide to writing release notes, we’ll cover all you need to know to write and publish great release notes, including:

  • What is a release note?
  • What are release notes used for?
  • Common mistakes when publishing release notes
  • What should be included in a release note
  • Guide to writing a perfect release note

Let us begin right away.

What is a Release Note?

A release note is a technical document that is written and published to accompany either the launch of a software product or an update released for a software solution (i.e., security patches, bug fixes, new features, etc.)

This release note consists of a brief description of the newly released product or details of the specific changes recently introduced to the product.

Release notes can be used internally as a part of the software development process but are more commonly targeted at the product’s users.

In some cases, the release note may provide a comprehensive explanation of new product features or changes. However, they are not a direct substitute for a user’s manual or guide.

Who’s Responsible for Writing Release Notes?

The answer would depend on several factors, like the structure of the organization, as well as the specific changes that are currently communicated with the release note.

However, release notes can be written by:

  • Software developers
  • Professional writer 
  • Member of the marketing team
  • Product Manager
  • Quality Assurance analysts
  • CTO

The Importance of Release Notes

Unfortunately, many software developers and companies often view release notes as a burdensome, compulsory practice that must be performed during any update or product launch.

On the other hand, users and team members also often take release notes for granted and only look for them once they face an issue with the software.

As a result, release notes are often written poorly, and users have been taught by experience just to ignore them.

However, a well-written release note can provide so many benefits for both the software development company and the product users, including:

  • Written documentation of technical details in the release notes helps the software development company keep track of the development process’s performances: build time, the number of build failures, responsiveness, test results, and so on.
  • Ensuring that all stakeholders of the software product are properly informed about the product release and/or changes in the product. Stakeholders can be both internal and external:
    • Internal stakeholders: developers, executives, back office teams, product managers, etc.
    • External stakeholders: users/customers, vendors, partners, etc. 
  • Keep track of important statistics for audit purposes: the number of bugs fixed, new bugs introduced, new features introduced, estimated time of bug fixes vs. actual time, etc. The longer the software stays in the market, the more important the collection of release notes will be as a reference point.

Release Notes as a Marketing Tool

Besides its technical functions to communicate changes to stakeholders and as a reference point for audit purposes, release notes are also important as a marketing tool for the software development company with the following benefits:

Communicating that you are actively working and improving the software product

Customers would like a software product that is regularly improved and with reliable customer service. 

Regularly publishing release notes with each product change/update is a great way to show your user base that you are actively working on the product and continuously improving it. 

Providing a centralized source of truth

A dedicated and easy-to-find release note cuts through the noise, giving your customers an easy way to know about the product. This can help customers avoid false information provided by cyber criminals, and anytime your users have any questions about the product or want to know what’s changed, they can always refer back to your release notes.

Setting a clear expectation for users

A very important part of delivering a great customer experience is setting and meeting expectations. 

With centralized, regularly updated release notes, you can effectively set clear expectations and make sure your users are always on the same page.

Shows your customers that you do care

You can (and should) use your release notes as a way to provide answers and feedback to customers about features they’ve asked for, bugs they’ve encountered, or any issues with the software they’ve faced. 

This can help show your users that your company is genuinely listening to them and that you value your relationship with them by adding new features they’ve asked for, using their suggestions, and fixing the bugs they’ve discovered.

Anatomy of a Release Note

There’s no one-size-fits-all rule to writing a release note. Each product change (or product launch) is unique and may require a unique structure and approach in the release note.

However, most release notes would include four key elements that are presented in a structured manner:

1. Header

The header of the release note should properly communicate to readers what the release note is going to be about. Typically would include the product/software name, release number, and date of release. However, you can be creative and use more playful approaches, like including fun sub-headers and taglines.

2. Overview

This section should be a quick overview of the features introduced or bugs that have been fixed/addressed in the associated update. It will often be the most important section of the release note, and your users may look for this section first to quickly find out what the release note is about. They may decide whether or not to continue reading the release note after reading this section.

3. Resolution

An important section to set users’ expectations about this newly released update (or the released product.) This section should list the bugs fixed or issues resolved by the new features added in this update, followed by brief descriptions of what was done by your team.

Keep this section short and to the point, and keep it easy to read without being too technical. If communicating bug fixes and when necessary, you can also include descriptions on how to reproduce the bug.

If this release note accompanies an update rather than a bug fix, you can list improvements or enhancements made to the product and what issues or requests these enhancements are addressing.

4. Impacts

This section should communicate how this change or update may potentially impact user experience. For example, if the new features require users to configure something or whether there are changes in policies the users should know about.

Clearly communicate the necessary steps that should be taken by the user or stakeholder affected by these changes.

Release Note Structure Example

The actual structure of the release note may vary but should include the four key elements we’ve discussed above.

Below is just an example of a release note structure for communicating a bug fix:

  • Header
    • Document name
    • Product name
    • Release note date
    • Release number/version
    • Date of release
  • Overview
  • Purpose: fixing a known bug
  • Issue summary: a brief description of the bug fixed in this release
  • Steps to reproduce: description of steps followed after the bug was discovered
  • Resolution: description of changes made to fix the identified bug
  • Impact: list of specific actions needed to be taken by users to administer and properly use the changed software
  • Notes: additional relevant notes about the change/update like software/hardware installation or product documentation
  • Disclaimer: relevant disclaimers about the product or the company
  • Contact: contact information

Other Common Elements of Release Notes

This is not an exhaustive list, but depending on the purpose of the release note, you may also want to include the following elements:

  • Installation and update instructions. May be required if the new change requires different installation approaches than usual.
  • Advice for the QA team. For internal-facing release notes.
  • Priority and severity of different bugs. If multiple bug fixes
  • Product screenshots.
  • Known issue.
  • Documentation links. Or other downloadable/separate resources as needed

Next release date. Describe what to expect in the next release, along with a tentative release date.

Writing an Optimal Release Note: Actionable Tips

1. Focus on communicating the value to your stakeholder

The most important principle to understand is that the release note should be about the stakeholder (customer/user or internal stakeholder) and not emphasize promoting the software product or the company.

Clearly communicate how this specific change would benefit the stakeholder, and try to find the right balance between being engaging and informative based on your stakeholder’s preferences.

This also means that the better you understand your stakeholders: their needs, behaviors, pain points, and so on, the better your release notes will be.

2. Keep it short and to-the-point

Even if the product release involves a lot of and/or complex changes, try to keep the release notes short and to-the-point so that they are easy to consume. It’s best to keep the complete explanation optional and add a link to the additional information at the bottom of the release note if this more in-depth explanation is needed.

Try to communicate the changes as efficiently as possible without compromising clarity.

3. Pictures speak louder than words

To keep your release notes concise and to the point, embed images and/or videos to help explain the change without making the note too wordy.

People tend to be more engaged when texts are accompanied by visuals, so leverage this fact accordingly. 

However, avoid including too many photos and videos, or else you’ll risk making the release note too cluttered.

4. Keep it easy to read and accessible

Unless the release note is intended for a highly-technical audience (i.e., an internal release note for your software dev.), you should aim to make the release notes as accessible to everyone as possible. 

For external release notes (for customers/users), try to learn your target audience’s demographic data to identify potential language and cultural barriers based on geographical locations. This can help you create a more accessible release note for this specific user base.

Use plain, straightforward language and avoid using technical jargon unless it is absolutely required.

5. Keep multiple tiers/pricing plans in mind when publishing your release notes

If your product is delivered in a subscription-based SaaS model with multiple tiers, keep this in mind when publishing release notes.

Segment your release notes when necessary, and send release notes about certain features to those whose plans include these features.

Be clear in your release notes about which tiers/plans may be impacted by the newly introduced changes to avoid confusion. You can

6. Anticipate and provide additional context

Anticipate your stakeholder’s needs with each release note. If you release a new feature, provide them all the information they may need to access and make the most of the new feature. If you fix a bug, inform them what the bug is about and how it will impact their user experience.

Think about what your stakeholders may ask or think after they’ve read your release notes, and minimize their needing to contact support by providing additional contexts beforehand.

7. Don’t hard sell

While you can use your external-facing release notes to promote your product or your brand, remember that that’s not the main purpose of the release notes. 

Too much branding and promotions may hurt the user’s overall experience while consuming your release notes, so do it sparingly and strategically.

8. Include specific dates and make them prominent

Let your users know exactly when the specific changes discussed in the release notes were implemented. This won’t only help in ensuring your users understand the necessary context of the release notes but also will benefit you for documentation and audit purposes.

Create The Perfect Release Notes with ReleasePad

ReleasePad’s release notes software allows you to easily create and publish release notes via in-product alerts, so you can use the release notes to improve user experience (UX) rather than disrupt, allowing you to use the release notes as a tool to keep your users delighted.

A well-written release note can be a very effective tool in converting prospective users, as well as in retaining existing users. So, don’t underestimate its importance not only as a communicative tool but also in improving your user’s overall experience in interacting with your brand.