The one user touchpoint almost every mobile app ignores

An appeal for better app update release notes. What Slack, Spotify, and Billguard can teach us.

I love receiving app updates. They’re little random presents throughout the week, each with a promise of shiny new features or fewer bugs in my favourite products.

The only thing I love more than receiving updates is reading the release notes that accompany them.

I read literally every single one, because it seems almost rude not to. A team of really talented people spent weeks or even months making this gift for me — the least I could do is at least skim the notes, you know?

But after reading dozens (if not hundreds) of release notes, I have to ask: why are so many of them so bad?

Do people even read app release notes?

Good question! I wish the major app stores releases these stats, but for now, we can only go on anecdote.

Almost certainly, most people don’t read app release notes. But I suspect that many do!

Reddit discussion about release notes

People notice really good release notes and share them with others, as is often the case with Slack:

People also notice uninspiring release notes and they aren’t shy about sharing their thoughts on those, either:

True, the kind of person who 1) reads release notes 2) comments on them on social media likely works in tech, i.e. a small fraction of the population. But like it or not, these early adopters are loud and influential, and they can colour other people’s perception of your product.

Why release notes are important

There’s another kind of person who reads release notes: your app’s biggest fans.

These are the people who’re getting the most value from your product, who’re emotionally invested in your team’s success, and who need to be incentivized to tell all their friends about what you’ve made.

When you think about it this way, you realize that app update release notes are one of the precious few opportunities to engage directly with a self-selected group of some of your most valuable supporters.

Why would you squander this opportunity to give them something remarkable that they can share with friends?

Here’re two examples of teams doing it right.

BillGuard adds a human touch

BillGuard’s release notes are written by Marina, their Community Manager.

Recent BillGuard for Android release note

Until I started working with mobile app developers, I had never stopped to consider that this text is written by an actual human being.

By putting a face (or rather, a name and Twitter handle) next to the update, BillGuard humanizes the app and quietly reinforces the idea that the product is a labour of love by real people.

And since literally every other app update text is anonymous, this simple gesture immediately helps BillGuard stand out in my mind.

Tying the update to an ongoing social media campaign is a nice touch.

Spotify keeps it fun with microfiction

Spotify adds a neat little Easter egg at the end of every release note; the final line is always a ridiculous claim about the app’s awesomeness.

Recent Spotify for Android release note

I don’t remember when I first noticed these exercises in microfiction, but they’re consistently amusing enough that I look forward to updates just so I can see what they come up with next, and I’m not the only one — Buzzfeed has a good roundup.

Does this bit of fun contribute directly to Spotify’s bottom line? It’s impossible to say, but Spotify has succeeded in incentivizing lots of people to pay careful attention to their value proposition, multiple times a year. That’s valuable.

Additionally, this says something about Spotify’s company culture. It immediately signals to me that this is a team that cares about the details while also really enjoying what they do. The next time a friend expresses an interest in moving on to a new opportunity, I’ll ask if they’ve considered working at Spotify.

A wasted opportunity

Given the imaginative ways in which some startups take advantage of release notes, I’m always confused when I see some of the biggest names reject this opportunity to connect with users.

Twitter for Android

Twitter, for example, doesn’t include any text whatsover when it releases app updates, not even uninspiring boilerplate like “Bug fixes and improvements.”

With over 100 million installs, you could argue that Twitter doesn’t need to bother.

Perhaps.

I can only speak for myself, but every time Twitter sends me an insistent alert to update without deigning to explain why, they waste an opportunity to inform, delight, or underscore some aspect of their culture.

Is it unreasonable to ask for even a single sentence describing the team’s hard work? The decision not to engage at all comes across as aloof and almost dismissive.

Release notes as tiny canvases

In a recent post, Product Hunt co-founder Ryan Hoover shared how delightful surprises have helped build a supportive community around his company:

It’s hard to quantify but we know these bits of delight have helped cultivate a loyal community of people who have hunted great products and given us great ideas. These small things are important and regardless of its “ROI”, we’ll continue to try to delight those that (quite literally) make Product Hunt.

App update release notes are a very small user touchpoint, but with just a little bit of imagination, they can be a way to connect with users on a whole other level.

And this stuff doesn’t need to be fancy! Simply come up with a single quirky idea that’s going to be your thing, and tweak the template with every update. The bar is so low, you’ll immediately stand out, and this goodwill translates into other intangible but real benefits, such as improved word-of-mouth (which helps virality) and a greater likelihood that your users will be more forgiving when you mess up (which reduces churn).

It’s a small thing, but it all adds up in the neverending quest to make something people love. And when there’re literally thousands of new apps hitting the different app stores every single day, anything that helps you stand out in your user’s mind is worth exploring.

Have any other examples of apps with great release notes? Please share in a comment or on Twitter!

UPDATE: Check out Great Release Notes (@gr8release), a project by Adam Sigel to celebrate the best examples of release note microcopy and provide an archive of examples for teams who want to be better at it.