This is what happens when app developers try to be too fancy with their release notes

If there is something worth discussing about the App Store in 2015 it has to be the lack of tools developers have to communicate with their customers. Not much has changed since the first pioneers started leaving one-star reviews to punish an app developer for dropping an app’s price to the bottom or accidentally introducing a buggy version. If you are a developer and want to thank, celebrate, acknowledge or apologise, Apple doesn’t give you many avenues to communicate this to your audience.

Sure, you could write an article for your company’s blog, use your social media accounts, do some technical support on Twitter or even send the odd newsletter. Then you get the ones who send you a notification while you are using the app — asking you to review the latest version, but the really creepy ones are free to play games: who wants push notifications throughout the day asking you to collect free gems? There is a support button on the app listing but it’s unclear what the customer service policy from the developer is.

This is about professional and very good writers using an unexpected publishing tool to communicate with a very large audience. A platform that everyone has access to and that with some luck will get to see. A bunch of text that in addition to describe what’s new about an app could also be telling you more about who we are and why we prioritised this featured over that other one. Almost using a tone and a style that you find distinctive and that clicks with you. We don’t tell you what has happened. We tell you why what has happened is important to you.

What has slowly become a tacit agreement between users and developers is to use the release notes space as a microblogging feature of sorts. If you have disabled automatic background app updates, you will get a notification badge notification on the App Store app on iOS and read the latest about the apps with new versions to download.

When you are shopping around, release notes does get a prominent placement on the App Store app listing and will show a potential buyer if the app in question is in active development. Of course, the changelog is NOT meant to be used like this. The release notes section was envisioned to explain what has changed with the new version of the app and not for blogging.

What’s wrong with release notes today?

August is traditionally a month of slow news and perhaps for this reason I have read three articles touching on the same topic. Yesterday Martin Bryant writing for The Next Web describes fairly accurately three of the top trends in the App Store’s release note literature — of course none of the items is a bullet list of actual improvements and fixes. You basically get the ones that just copy and paste their boilerplate copy, the ones who forget or don’t bother and the ones who bother too much.

Nate Swanner, also for The Next Web, advocates for more descriptive release notes that explain what has been worked on in the last weeks instead of “silly” stories that don’t explain what’s been changed — at least a balance between the two.

The person who puts it best is Alex Florescu, writing from his app developer point of view on Medium. One thing is to want to be “original” with your release notes and a different thing is managing to pull it off. Unlike Swanner, he finds the funny type of release notes amazing but he also agrees they must balance information and humour. He also points out that having to localise all these updates is particularly challenging.

“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.”

Which brings me to the businesses doing a great job abusing the App Store’s release notes section. The London-based Citymapper is well-known for the narrative on its changelog, adapting the stories to make them relevant to its 30 markets — cities operating in. Some examples like “Dear Citymapper” put the app with the cream of the crop of App Store release note classics. To Florescu’s point, this success is not trivial. The company is on the lookout for writing talent like the freelance journalist Analía Plaza and puts together keynote-worthy articles on Medium. Yes, in multiple languages.

The ones doing it right

For every witty release note example from Slack, Citymapper, Trello, Medium and Tumblr there must be a million awful attempts at something relatively funny or informative. The style of release not that shines — or that is hated by purists — is written by actual copywriters with some journalism or creative writing training.

Your average indie app developer has spent so much time coding that the prospect of writing anything that humans will read really has to be a daunting task. This is, unfortunately, evident for those whose insist in doing their own marketing and end up coming with flawed PR pitches. Quoting Florescu again, ”[writing] original release notes is not as easy as it seems and not all mobile teams have someone that can do it well.”

I feel like I could wrap up this saying that indies and small teams should ask for help if they want to spice up their release notes with some personality. Even if they do the bullet point style, they should probably get assistance anyway for proofreading, grammar checks and localisation gaffes.

Where are release notes going?

We will never know what happened in that meeting room before the “let’s do it because everyone is doing it”. When you submit a new app update Apple provides a text field to enter some stuff and you have to write something. I don’t buy that release notes have become more elaborate because they want to be hip — there has to be something else.

The haters could agree that this provides some reading entertainment while the app downloads. Easter eggs are fun but that’s not what it is about. I strongly believe that this platform, as unusual as it is, is as valid as a company blog to communicate with customers.

A quick review of what other app developers include on the release notes is quite telling. The App Store doesn’t provide an option to close the feedback loop with customers and this is noted in most release notes: if you experience any issue or want to get in touch, this is how you can do it.