A few thoughts on release notes

I’m one of those people that actually reads release notes and and Tumblr’s most recent iOS release definitely had something amazing in store for me.

I love this sort of stuff and this one was most definitely noticed.

But as I was following some of the conversations around this, I felt that people are way too quick to criticise the apps and companies that are not doing this. Having written release notes as a mobile developer in a large company, a startup and for my own apps, there are a few things I wanted to say about this.

  • Writing funny or even just original release notes is not as easy as it seems and not all mobile teams have someone that can do it well.
  • Release notes are there to deliver some information: what has changed. If they can do that while being original and humorous, that’s amazing! But don’t forget the core purpose.
  • If you support more than one locale, this becomes a real adventure. Translating humour is extremely difficult, usually well beyond the abilities of 3rd party translation services and it inevitably adds a delay of at least a few days to your release if you have to wait for this to get done. This was the biggest hurdle we faced with smart release notes when working on Fantasy Football. By the way, you know those funny release notes from Tumblr above? Here they are in French:
Nouveautés de la version 4.3.1
Au menu de cette petite mise à jour :
• Correctifs divers

Notice any difference?

  • Most apps nowadays run A/B tests and certain new features are bucketed while still being live-tested and developed. This makes it even harder to talk about new features in the release notes, as some users won’t see these new features. You can’t even write about the features after they are out of testing and have gone out to 100%, because the features aren’t “new” to the users that had been in the test bucket. There is no mechanism on either store platform to deal with this. And for big companies, it’s very likely that all new features go through an A/B test before being released.

So let’s recap. For a mobile team to produce these funny smart original release notes and to get it right, they need to have someone that is capable and willing to write them, while ensuring that the real content still comes across clearly and concisely; they have to avoid talking about features that have been or are being A/B tested (which could be all of them) and they have to make sure they are translated to all the supported locales.

Or they could just use some standard pre-translated messages like “bug fixes and performance improvements”, avoid the headache and focus on delivering great value to their users. Remember, that thing the entire mobile team got hired to do.

It’s worth reiterating at this point that I’m a huge fan of funny release notes and that I am doing my best to write some as well (though my main focus is not so much on humour as it is on “making them sound like a human being wrote them”). I think they are a fantastic way of communicating with your most loyal and engaged users and if you can do something special there, you should do it!

I also think that Tumblr’s release notes above were actually pretty great and even though they didn’t tell us anything about what changed and they were only available in English, they reminded us what Tumblr is all about. It shows a lot about their values, their culture, even the personalities on the team. I loved it and I applaud it!

That said, please please stop blaming the apps and the teams that do not do this. There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re not being lazy, it’s just a lot harder than you might think it is and it gets increasingly harder as the app is more successful and international, not in any way easier.

Instead, just enjoy it when you do get to read something well written. It means that someone capable of doing this was willing to put in the effort, and you’re fortunate that they happen to speak the same language as you do! Also, as always, make sure you let the teams know that you appreciate their work. Because release notes like this are hard work and they deserve it.

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