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Changelogs vs Release Notes: An In-Depth Comparison (with examples)

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    Home / Product / Changelogs vs Release Notes: An In-Depth Comparison (with examples)

    You're looking for a medium to communicate your product announcements and updates, such as feature enhancements, new integrations, API improvements, or major version changes, but cannot decide whether to go with a changelog or a release note?

    I got you.

    In this article, we'll go over the distinctions between changelogs and release notes, their best use cases, and practices to master both of them.

    TL;DR

    • A changelog is a detailed document that provides an overview of all the changes made to a software product over time.
    • Whereas a release note is a document that provides information about specific releases and major updates.
    • While all the updates, bug fixes, and enhancements are included in the changelog, they are not necessarily explained and announced with individual release notes.
    • Changelogs tend to be more technical and to the point, explaining the updates only enough. Release notes, on the other hand, tend to be more explanatory, jargon-free, and visually supported.
    • Changelogs do not aim for more than transparency and update announcements, whereas release notes encourage users to try out a new feature or update by providing value propositions.

    What Is A Changelog?

    A changelog is a detailed document that provides an overview of all the changes, updates, improvements, and fixes made to a software product over time.

    It's usually in reverse chronological order, showcasing the most recent changes at the top of the page and the earlier versions of the product towards the end of the page.

    It might look like this:

    Changelogs vs Release Notes

    Or this:

    Changelogs vs Release Notes

    It is up to you to announce (or not) your upcoming features or the projects your developer team is currently working on. Depending on your products/ services and user base, the type of labeling and categorization system you use for your changelog entries can also change.

    Regardless of these strategic differences, a good changelog should always be clear and organized. It should enable your audience to navigate easily to find the relevant information. But we'll discuss what makes a good changelog in the upcoming sections, so don't worry about that for now.

    What Is A Release Note?

    Similar to a changelog, a release note is a document that provides information about new features, product enhancements, and major updates.

    However, unlike changelog entries that include even the smallest bug fixes, release notes mostly include only the significant changes and major feature enhancements that are likely to impact user experience.

    Release notes are also more user-friendly and easier to read as they're free from technical jargon. They are also supported with visuals, such as videos or screenshots from the user interface.

    Release notes allow for more freedom in terms of structure and design. So they differ more from one another compared to the relatively similar designs and structures of changelogs.

    However, here are some examples:

    Changelogs vs Release Notes
    Loom's release note
    Changelogs vs Release Notes
    UserGuiding's product update announcement

    As you can see, a release note isn't necessarily a one-way communication where you share your news and updates while your customers just listen (or read). You can also turn it into an interactive experience by offering a chance for customers to provide feedback or give a quick reaction.

    Understanding the Differences between Changelogs and Release Notes

    Although both release notes and changelogs are mediums for product teams to announce changes or improvements, they differ significantly in their structure, language use, and several other aspects.

    Let's see how 🔎

    Target Audience

    Changelogs and release notes address different audiences. While changelogs are read by mostly developers and technical users, release notes appeal to a broad audience, such as non-technical users and stakeholders.

    All the other differences between release notes and changelogs originate from this main difference, actually.

    Level of Detail

    Changelogs are basically comprehensive lists of all the changes made since the first introduction of the product until today, which means, they include even the smallest fixes and improvements.

    Whereas release notes focus on key features, improvements, and introductions that are relevant to the overall user experience. Because it's for a non-technical audience, you do not need to include small bug fixes if they're not radically important or even noticeable to the average user.

    Tone and Style

    While changelog entries tend to be more detailed in terms of the changes they include, they are not necessarily more explanatory or easy to understand.

    Changelogs do not usually provide in-depth instructions or use cases for new features. They describe the nature of the change, but they are not very detailed and use more technical language, as they are aimed at developers.

    In contrast, release notes tend to be more explanatory and instructive. They use clearer, more concise, and user-friendly language, often including example use cases, benefits, and further explanations.

    The purpose of a changelog is to inform a developer or technical user about a change, without necessarily motivating them to take action.

    In contrast, a release note not only informs users about a change but also encourages them to take action, such as trying a new feature. Therefore, release notes often include motivational triggers like value propositions and instructions.

    Format and Structure

    Changelogs are often formatted in reverse chronological order. Release notes, on the other hand, are structured to highlight the most important updates first.

    They're often categorized by new features, improvements, and bug fixes for easier readability. Changelogs also include a great number of technical details such as version numbers, issue numbers, release dates, code snippets, etc.

    Though all of these can also be available in a release note, most of the time, they're not included so as not to overwhelm users with too many technical details and are kept only on changelogs.

    Use of Visuals

    Another important difference between changelogs and release notes is the use of visuals, such as screenshots from the UI or explanatory videos and product tours.

    Although some companies, such as Mixpanel, incorporate visuals —even videos— into their changelogs, it is not very common to add GIFs, screenshots, or product tour videos to changelog entries (but we see a lot of code snippets if you want to count them as visuals, too).

    However, since release notes target non-technical users, they tend to incorporate many visuals to help visual learners understand how the new feature looks and works.

    Best Use Cases of Changelogs and Release Notes (+ Examples)

    All these differences between changelogs and release notes do not imply that one is perfect and the other is terrible. Rather, they make each suitable for different use cases, which can be listed like this 👇🏻

    Changelogs are good for:
    • Tracking project history and code changes.
    • Providing detailed information for developers and technical teams.
    • Creating a reference point for internal teams, such as support teams.
    • Maintaining transparency and keeping stakeholders informed.  
    Release notes are good for:
    • Announcing new features and updates to a general audience.
    • Highlighting use cases and value propositions to the end-users.
    • Encouraging users to try out a new feature or integration.
    • Creating a reference point for internal teams, such as customer success sales, and marketing teams.
    • Communicating with end-users and gathering feedback after releases

    Let's see some real-life examples of these use cases 👀

    #1 CoScreen explains why users should try out their new feature

    CoScreen is a collaborative screen-sharing tool specifically made for product development teams and engineering teams.

    And here's a release note from CoScreen:

    Now, because CoScreen is a SaaS tool for developers, even their release notes have technical jargon‎. But it's still a release note and not a changelog entry.

    We know how?

    Because it's not just announcing, "Hey, we released CoTerm Beta!" and moving on to other product changes. Instead, it provides motivations for users to encourage them to try out the feature.

    ⚠️ So, even if your general customer base consists of developers and coders who can understand your changelog entries, you still need release notes alongside a changelog to communicate your value propositions to your users.

    #2 Notion lists (small or big) all the changes and updates

    Notion is one of the most popular note-taking and workspace tools.

    And this is what its changelog looks like:

    There are changelogs designed specifically for product announcements, complete with labels, categories, and separate entries for each update. And then there are changelogs designed to maintain a comprehensive product history over time.

    This is an example of the second type of changelog.

    Notion offers a very detailed and thorough report of what its developer team has accomplished, documenting every change, no matter how big or small.

    Did they add clarifications to the product documentation?

    It goes to the changelog.

    #3 Slack ensures transparency by highlighting important updates

    You know Slack. And I know you know Slack.

    So let's skip the introduction and jump to Slack's changelog 🦘

    Slack's changelog works similarly to Notion's, listing the newest updates first and older ones further down the page.

    But what Slack does differently is it puts important updates like policy changes or deprecations right at the top, under a section called "Important Updates." So, even if something was announced back in March or April, if it's still relevant, you'll see it right away when you open the changelog.

    Like this:

    #4 Miro first addresses customers' pain points then offers solutions

    Miro is a digital collaboration and whiteboard tool that enables people to collaborate on designs, presentations, mindmaps, and roadmaps.

    Here's an excerpt from one of its monthly release notes:

    What Miro does here is speak directly to the unsatisfied needs‎ of a certain user segment: enterprises. After addressing their pain points, it offers a solution to their problems and presents its value proposition.

    The same goes for the second feature note, too. Miro shows that it understands its customers and what they need, and its developer team is working to ensure their satisfaction and happiness.

    #5 UserGuiding collects feedback right on its product updates page

    UserGuiding is an all-in-one product adoption tool that enables teams to create interactive in-app flows, resource centers, customer surveys, and product update pages.

    And here is what its product updates page looks like:

    UserGuiding doesn't just use its product updates page to publish release notes; it also uses it to collect customer feedback (written or reactions) from its users. This creates an opportunity to test the waters and engage directly with its users.

    It can be tricky to pinpoint which user review corresponds to a specific update or feature, especially when companies release multiple changes in a short period, like monthly updates.

    However, with this system, while companies can attribute user reviews to specific updates, users can submit feature requests or leave comments -even anonymously!

    👉🏻 Try it for yourself 👈🏻

    Best Practices for Changelogs

    Now that we've seen some examples and familiarized ourselves with changelogs, let's discuss practices that transform meh changelogs into wow ones, shall we?

    Create a system (and stick with it)

    A changelog is not a dumpster of product updates.

    Whether you publish your product changes and improvements as separate entries or as one never-ending document, you need a system.

    Here are a few suggestions:

    • Use labels and tags to categorize your entries (new features, bug fixes, UI improvements, API changes, etc.)
    • Implement search and filter features
    • Create a ready-to-fill template for version numbers, ticket numbers, issue numbers, authors, plans affected, release date, etc.
    • Highlight important updates with formatting such as bolds or color-coding, or at the beginning of the entry/ changelog document
    • Archive old versions

    Ensure clarity

    Changelogs serve as technical documentation primarily targeted at developers and technical users. While it's unnecessary to explain every technical term in-depth, it's essential to use precise technical language and provide specific details.

    For example, when introducing a major update to a database schema, include clear instructions on schema changes, migration steps, and any potential impacts on existing data structures; or when updating an API, it's helpful to include detailed instructions on its implementation.

    You can explain these details in drop-down text boxes to keep your changelog organized and easy to skim through.

    If you find that you cannot fit all the instructions and explanations in a drop-down text box (or if you can, but it would be inefficient), you can create separate how-to guides in your knowledge base or help articles and link them to your changelog.

    You can also incorporate visuals and code snippets, as well.

    Use version control integrations

    If you don't want to work on a detailed changelog template -or use a 3rd party changelog tool- but still want to communicate technical changes and feature enhancements with other developers, you can automate your changelog by linking it with Git commits.

    When you make changes to your codebase —like fixing bugs, adding new features, or improving existing ones—the commit messages will automatically populate your changelog and document each update in real time.

    Now, this integration does not provide additional explanation or description, other than the changes themselves.

    So you still need to write them if you want your changelog to be a helpful and useful changelog. However, it is still useful, as you do not need to go back and manually list all changes your team has done for that day/ week/ month/ quarter.

    So it's a good starting point, let's say.

    Best Practices for Release Notes

    Here's what you can do to improve your release notes 👇🏻

    Personalize the content

    Release notes include little to no technical jargon (unless your customers are solely developers, like CoScreen's case). However, non-technical users are not all the same. Product people, sales people, and marketing people all speak a different language. So, depending on your own user base, tailor your content and language.

    Highlight the value proposition

    Remember, you're not just communicating your new feature; you're addressing a user need and offering a solution. So, it's important that you speak the same language as your users while writing your release notes —not just in a technical sense but also in terms of needs and expectations.

    Just like you should avoid overly technical language, you should also avoid a sales-y tone. Go with plain language. It's not a solely technical document, and it's not a sales pitch, so find a happy medium.

    In a release note, you can include:

    • A brief description of new features
    • Use cases/ advantages
    • Unmet customer needs (which will be met with these new features)

    Keep it digestible

    Depending on your product strategies, you can publish release notes monthly, quarterly, or whenever you release a new update. The length of your release notes might vary based on the timing and complexity of your new features. However, you should still keep them as brief and easy to understand —and read— as possible.

    You should also devise formatting strategies to avoid agonizing your users, especially if you plan to publish lengthy release notes.

    You can:

    • Use headings, TL;DRs, bullet points, and emojis
    • Incorporate screenshots and product tour videos for complex features
    • Use links to help articles or how-to guides for technical details

    Key Takeaways

    • Changelogs offer a thorough historical record for technical audiences, while release notes provide an accessible summary of updates for a broader user base.
    • Both documents are essential for maintaining transparency, ensuring effective communication, and enhancing the overall user experience.
    • Both are valuable reference points for internal teams. Changelogs, with their focus on bug fixes and technical implementations, serve as reference points for teams such as customer support and success. While release notes, with their detailed explanations and value propositions, are reference points for teams like sales and marketing.

    Changelogs use technical language and are typically structured as concise lists with little to no further explanation. Release notes use narrative language and highlight significant changes, their user benefits, and use cases with clear and detailed explanations and examples.Let's get started 🏃🏻

    Frequently Asked Questions

    What is the difference between readme and release notes?

    A README is a document that typically provides an overview of a software product. It generally includes installation instructions, usage guidelines, and basic information for users and developers. Release notes, on the other hand, are documents that communicate product changes and updates in each version of the software. They highlight new features, bug fixes, and enhancements for users.

    What is the purpose of a changelog?

    A changelog's purpose is to track the history and evolution of a software product by documenting code changes and updates over time. It provides information essential for developers and technical teams and allows them to understand modifications made in each software release. Additionally, the changelog serves as a reference point for internal teams, such as support teams, and enables efficient issue resolution and user assistance. It also maintains transparency between the company, users, and stakeholders.

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