Releasing release notes from their monotony

Back in 2015, Tumblr made sufficient news with its version 4.3. Ironically, there was no version 4.3 of Tumblr’s iOS app – there was only version 4.3.1. But version 4.3 made a lot of news because of the non-existent version’s release notes.

It was a fan-fiction involving Tumblr’s then founder and CEO, David Karp!

An easier read, fittingly, on a Tumblr page 🙂

But considering this was about version 4.3.1, the notes did not contain any meaningful addition about the actual updates of that version! So despite making a lot of news and getting shared a lot on Twitter it didn’t serve the purpose of the medium it was used in.

Release notes as a medium of practical communication have been around for a long time. The usually expected piece of information on release notes include:

  • new prominent additions
  • what was removed, if any
  • bug fixes
  • any other changes that the user should know

It’s a standard, mechanical, and functional piece of communication.

That is… if you think it is standard, mechanical, and functional. But why would anyone think otherwise? The reason is simple and obvious: release notes exist very publicly.

No doubt, release notes are shared via direct communication modes like email or in-app announcements too, but they are more popularly shared as part of the app store listing, besides other modes like social media/Reddit updates and in company blogs/websites.

And these—app store listings, social media updates, or company blogs—are very public and visible to the entire world, if the world cared to look, that is. And that’s the nub of this topic – the relative disinterest among the general public, let alone the dedicated users of the app/software in consuming/reading release notes.

Suffice to say that the nerdiest, passionate users may keenly read release notes. The larger part of the user base couldn’t care less and simply hit update unless they are keenly looking forward to a new feature or the update or a problematic feature.

There is another interesting dichotomy worth observing: think of who gets to write these release notes vs. who does the work that ends up as release notes (the actual coding in the app).

It’s no secret that coders and techies, by and large, do not care for communication and related nuances (with some glorious exceptions, of course). They are known to be nerdy for a reason and perhaps revel in that too since that allows them unfettered access to their chosen profession/work without worrying about worldly concerns like social/interpersonal communications. This is as much a stereotype as there is a kernel of truth in it.

From what I asked around a few app makers/coders, I gather that release notes are usually handled by technical writers in the team after getting to understand each release cycle’s updates from the techies/coders. And that, to some extent, perhaps explains why most release notes are simply informational and to-the-point.

But consider the possibility and potential. Release notes are the technology world’s equivalent of an episodic TV series! The characters are the same and something happens to the characters in every episode! New characters are introduced and killed with regular frequency. There are plot twists too!

In fact, Tumblr once used a TV show to write short, episodic release notes!

Seeing release notes through this framework, and considering the fact that they exist very publicly make them ideal to use for marketing and organic PR. They could add word of mouth if planned appropriately.

This does not mean tech. companies need to hire a novelist to write release notes. For most practical purposes, most of the periodic notes are—and should be—just functional information being shared. But what software companies could do is consider adding a flavor and a tone that can be uniquely owned by that organization.

This flavor and tone cannot live in isolation though. This is usually conceived and managed by the marketing teams and perhaps already exists in the minds of users if the marketing efforts have been visibly successful. The owners of the release note just need to look at the marketing team’s efforts to understand and imbibe the same tone and flavor even in release notes.

Quite a few brands already do this.

Here’s Slack, for instance:

They are not outrageously funny or even share-worthy, but there is consistency in terms of the tone – there’s a gentle, humorous conversational tone that makes them worth reading. The primary audience would remain hardcore users only, though and the audience is unlikely to the larger world (that is, like a marketing effort).

Or consider the release notes for Medium version 1.17.1483 – they simply pasted the Slack exchange between the team in the name of release notes 🙂

In fact, Medium has a running joke about an employee only named ‘Peter’ (who may or may not be real)!

Another example: the release notes of TeamSnap, the sports team management app.

And yet another – Asana:

But besides bringing the brand’s tone and flavor into the release notes consistently, the company could also plan one-off campaigns periodically through the medium of release notes. I reckon that may have been the idea with the blockbuster success of version 4.3 of Tumblr even though it missed the core purpose of release notes in the first place. But that’s not a crime either since they did follow it up with purposeful notes on 4.3.1 anyway. The point was that release notes were treated as a marketing canvas and Tumblr saw an opportunity where others had not.

This is not too different from planning a social media campaign – the tools are the same: clever ideas, clever articulation, a specific channel, and planned seeding of the output. It’s just that, unlike social media, most people in the audience are disinterested to read release notes and may perhaps never ever see it at all. But that’s precisely the sentiment that can be turned on its head by treating the release notes as an occasionally exciting user touch point and forcing people to take note by going about it smartly.

Also, social media doesn’t have a preset notion on why it needs to be used – that it is for marketing communications is taken for granted. But release notes’ primary purpose is very clearly defined – it need not be only that narrow, however.

All that starts with assuming that release notes can be used as a marketing/PR vehicle too and not just as a functional piece of information.

Going beyond release notes, other similar single-purpose user touch-points that exist publicly have been used creatively by brands – like even the most boring ‘privacy policy’ update! Twitter actually made a pixel-art style game called ‘Twitter Data Dash‘ to not just communicate the privacy policies to users, but also engage them while doing so!