If you’ve ever started using a new software version, you might have been directed to that software’s release notes or changelog.
These documents provide an overview of all the changes included in the latest release.
For example, let’s say a documentation tool introduces Markdown editing. That new feature will be announced in either the release notes or the changelog.
The question is: where exactly would it be announced? In the release notes or the changelog?
Although these two documents are similar, they aren’t the same. To find out more, keep reading—we’ve outlined all the differences between the two.
What Is a Product Release Note
Software is an ever-growing product—just consider all the iterations Microsoft Windows, Instagram, and Meta have gone through.
As you update software, you don’t want to neglect your users. What if they try to upload attachments and the functionality is missing?
Or if the interface has changed and they can’t find features?
You’d likely wind up with some frustrated customers.
This is why product release notes are so vital. These documents detail all the latest changes, providing users with an overview of the software’s most recent updates.
Amoeboids, a release notes tool, defined these texts as follows:
Release notes are geared toward end-users. Whether the changes are bug fixes, new features, or functionality updates, each edit should be explained with regard to the user experience.
For example, look at Intercom‘s release notes:
The text explains all the newest features, so readers have a clear overview of what new functionalities are at their disposal.
Furthermore, the language itself is user-centric. The second-person point of view predominates, and each update is explained in the context of how customers can utilize the new feature.
Because of this focus on benefits for the users, release notes are also often advertised on social media.
These platforms can easily reach many users, so companies can promote the changes to their products more efficiently.
Fibery is a good example:
By showcasing their upcoming release notes via Twitter, Fibery can easily approach its user base and inform customers about the newest updates succinctly.
However, the most concise release notes are mobile app release notes.
Considering the significant number of mobile app users, smartphone customers must also be informed about the latest software changes.
Although these release notes are rather brief, they still contribute to the user experience.
Just look at TikTok’s release notes:
Despite the brevity, the release notes are helpful for customers. They still communicate the app’s newest features, and users know exactly what has changed.
However, this release notes format is one extreme end of the spectrum. For most non-mobile software, release notes are written in long form and are much more detailed.
When composing these more extended release notes, it’s worth sticking to a standardized template.
That way, you’ll achieve consistency throughout all your release notes, and the content will be well-organized.
Consequently, users should easily navigate the notes and quickly take in the new updates.
If you’re unsure how to begin, try the following release notes template:
By sticking to this framework, your long-form release notes will achieve a logical, consistent structure readers can easily follow.
All five components are equally important, and communicating them provides the essential updates users want in release notes.
What Is a Product Changelog
In theory, a product changelog isn’t that different from product release notes.
Similar to release notes, a changelog also documents changes made to a software product, and readers consult the changelog for a chronological list of software revisions.
However, who are these readers? Not end-users.
A changelog is much more technical than release notes.
Whereas release notes target end-users, explaining the novelties from a user’s perspective, a changelog is written for developers.
In changelogs, software edits will be described in the context of drivers, servers, cookies, and domains. Changelogs document the backend changes—the changes that matter to developers.
This topic was also discussed in a Quora thread, where one user defined changelogs as follows:
This example illustrates how developers rely on changelogs to collaborate and work more efficiently.
Used to understand the inner workings of software, these records are invaluable for developers’ workflows.
Here’s an excellent example of the content of a changelog, courtesy of Vercel:
These updates don’t mean much to end-users—why would they care about environment variables and frameworks?
However, such specifics are certainly important for developers.
When building software, the devil is in the details. Consequently, a changelog should be as detailed as possible, and a vague one isn’t much use.
The more information, the more support for developers.
André Francois, the co-founder of Happy at Work, has also highlighted this, stating:
It’s better not to release a changelog at all than write such a brief, uninformative entry. "Bug fixes" doesn’t communicate much information, making the changelog decidedly unhelpful.
An effective changelog article should have much more specific content. Olivier Lacan, the Principal Software Engineer at Pluralsight, recommends the following organization:
These categories are fantastic for organizing a changelog’s structure, and each changelog should contain these information points.
After all, these are the core edits a developer will want to know about and are great starting points for building high-quality changelog articles.
However, if the developers are pressed for time or the company lacks a technical writer, there’s another effective changelog strategy.
A Reddit user proposed the following technique:
By using version control and writing detailed commit messages, the changelog essentially writes itself.
This technique motivates developers to be thorough, which results in informative changelogs.
Furthermore, as this Reddit user points out, these commit messages can even be tagged, automatically creating a much more organized structure.
However, the approach (Lacan’s tags or detailed commit messages) itself is less important than the fact that there is an existing changelog and that it’s detailed enough to assist developers.
Product Release Notes vs. Changelogs: Key Differences
Although product release notes and changelogs have the same goal (documenting changes made to a software product), the execution, audience, and format are all markedly different.
The two documents form two sides of the same coin. Each strives to record software revisions, but in their own unique way.
For example, here’s one difference, in the words of experienced developer Keiwan Donyagard:
Changelogs are an exhaustive list of all software changes. These documents don’t omit even the most minor revisions.
Release notes, however, are a summary of only the most critical updates that are relevant to the users.
They’re not as long as changelogs and serve as a brief overview of the largest software edits.
However, the differences don’t stop there.
A Stack Overflow thread also discussed this topic, with one user commenting the following:
Changelogs are highly technical, listing particularities such as bug fixes, software enhancements, etc.
Because of this subject matter, they’re closely tied to developers and are invaluable when building software.
By extension, developers (or technical writers) are often authors of the changelogs.
Release notes, on the other hand, are more user-centric. They explain the new features in a user experience context and are publicly promoted to all software customers.
Consequently, they’re not as technical as changelogs and can be written by product or marketing teams. Developers aren’t as reliant on release notes.
Considering the different audiences, companies often host both release notes and a changelog.
For example, here’s Twitter’s changelog:
Developers are clearly the intended readers, as this text addresses new batch compliance endpoints. In fact, the article explicitly mentions developers and researchers.
Now look at an excerpt from Twitter’s release notes from around the same date:
Despite these release notes being dated only a few days later, neither the endpoints nor the developers are mentioned.
Instead, a compilation of new functionalities is summarized in a cheerful tone, clearly directed at the end user.
Furthermore, the second-person singular predominates in an effort to address users directly and increase engagement.
This wasn’t the case with the changelog, which had a much more reserved, stoic tone.
For a brief overview of the differences between the two documentation types, look at the visual below:
When trying to communicate software updates to your end-users, your best bet is to rely on product release notes.
These documents are user-friendly and short enough to be a handy summary.
However, to make their lives easier, you’ll need to point your developers to a changelog for all the technical details.
Although both documents are great resources, the information type and format differ significantly. Don’t mistake release notes for changelogs or vice versa—they’re not the same.
Product Release Notes vs. Changelogs: Which One Is Better
Release notes and changelogs both serve their own unique purpose.
Therefore, instead of asking which of the two is better, try reformulating the question: which one is better for us?
If your users are primarily non-technical, and you want to bolster your marketing efforts, the more accessible release notes are likely the better solution.
However, developers will appreciate changelogs and a comprehensive history of changes is advisable when building complex software.
Changelogs will also be a good choice if your product is highly technical or aimed at developers.
For a brief overview of when to use which document, look at the visual below:
To sum up, release notes are the better option for all external, user-related communication, and companies with a solid customer-facing presence should focus on these documents.
Conversely, changelogs are optimal for firms with a technical audience, either external or internal. They’re also the logical choice to track all changes to your software.
Whatever document you choose, ensure the articles are well-structured.
Both the release notes and the changelogs are information-packed, yet your readers should be able to quickly find what they need.
This is especially pertinent in light of recent findings:
Most readers scan text, looking for signposts instead of reading the article word-for-word.
Considering this accelerated reading style, a well-organized document structure favoring key information pays off.
Your documents will be more readable, and your audience will be able to quickly find the information they’re looking for.
This shouldn’t be difficult, as release notes are frequently generated from the changelog itself.
An experienced developer explained how in a Quora thread:
Release notes often tell the same story as a changelog, simply presented differently. Both documents detail software changes but distinguish target audiences and content scope.
If you’re unsure which to choose, start with a changelog, as your developers will definitely appreciate it.
Then, as your non-technical user base grows, simply extrapolate the release notes from the changelog. With that method, you can easily address both your end-users and the developers.
The only question left is where to host these segments.
The answer is a documentation platform. These tools are designed to meet all your documentation needs and should be well-equipped to host release notes and changelogs.
For example, here are ChartHops’s release notes:
This release notes page was built with our documentation tool, Archbee.
By utilizing a documentation tool, ChartHop incorporated its release notes into its general product documentation and maintained the same stylistic details.
Currently, ChartHop only provides release notes, but if they ever decide to include a changelog, the documentation platform will make the process of creating one much easier.
ChartHop will then be able to host both documentation variants—both invaluable.
Let’s return to our very first example from the introduction.
So, a software solution implements Markdown editing. Where will this new feature be described? In the release notes or the changelog?
The release notes will walk end-users through a step-by-step guide on utilizing Markdown editing, complete with screenshots and maybe even a video.
The changelog, on the other hand, will host a detailed, more technical article, usually primarily aimed at developers, with perhaps a link to a table of all the available Markdown shortcuts.
Both approaches are informative and valuable; the only question is, which method fits your software product better?