3 min read

You asked: Release Notes

Three photos of Ali Rayl and Anna Pickard from a photo wall
Anna and Ali always found the photo wall at every Slack event.

Our first topic request from the inbox, and it's a good one! [If you replied to the first newsletter, we didn't receive it. Ali didn't set up Reply-To properly. Sorry!]

Ali and Johnny—I’d love to learn what inspired the whimsy in Slack’s release notes. It’s a great practice that humanizes the development process, added much-needed humor when explaining bugs and encouraged me to immediately read them as soon as I saw the notice in Slack. Was that your intent or just a beautiful outcome of process meeting personality? 

Terri Helus

Slack's release notes started getting interesting in 2014. They were unlike anything else on the app stores, especially in the category of work software. A sample from our October 2015 iOS release:

- Fixed: If you select “Safari” as your Web Browser preference, links will not open in the in-app browser, they’ll now open in… wait for it: Safari.
- Fixed: Where previously some users couldn’t open https links in Chrome, they now can. Now any link you want to open in Chrome can and will open in (all together now) Chrome.

"Minor improvements and bug fixes" was not our style.

Slack, as you likely know, was the result of a pivot from a video game called Glitch. Before Slack, the team spent over three years building a game environment that you'd want to hang out in for hours. Every aspect of the experience had to hold a new surprise, and once the novelty wore off, it had to remain durably delightful. This core ethos — that if we were going to ask you to spend time with us, we were going to do our absolute best to make it pleasant — came with us into Slack.

There were far fewer nooks and crannies in our new work-oriented product to insert surprise and delight. Release notes, however: what a gift! App distribution platforms gave us a big empty text box to do whatever, and for us, that was to be us.

This is where Anna Pickard came in. She was one of the many employees that the company let go when Glitch ended, and one of the first we brought back as Slack came to life. If you've ever found yourself appreciating Slack's voice, that's Anna.

By the time Anna returned to the company in the spring of 2014, Stewart and Ali were each spending a minimum of two hours every day tweeting from @SlackHQ. They'd established a recognizable company voice through improvisation, intuition, and workshopping tweets over DM, but they never stopped to write down the formula. Anna evaluated Slack's already-significant landscape of written output and not only codified what our voice was, but how and where we might expand its reach.

Anna distilled Slack's voice into three key elements: clear, concise, and human.

  • Clear was the most important element. We communicated in ways that were simple and comprehensible.
  • Concise was a reminder to ourselves to respect our customers' time. Everyone is very busy!
  • Human is what made Slack feel like Slack. We wanted customers to know that we cared enough to craft all of our communications for their benefit.

On that big, empty, tantalizing text box for release notes, Anna wrote:

This is a simple, intuitive, unintrusive way to talk to people. Don’t want to read it? Cool! Your app will still get better, whether you read them or not, so it’s not annoying people with stuff in a place they can’t ignore. It’s just a little space in which we can be human. We can connect.

We tried to achieve a number of things with each set of release notes. Anna hosted a session in company onboarding for several years, and used release notes as an example of how Slack expresses itself to the outside world. In this session, she explained that Slack's release notes should:

  • Let people know things are always changing for the better.
  • Let people know we’re listening to bug reports, and acting on them. 
  • Educate people about little features that were otherwise difficult to find.
  • Celebrate the work of our engineers on every platform.
  • Acknowledge what we’ve done wrong and that we're continually improving.
  • Be fun enough that people want to read them, and want to encourage others to do the same. 
It was fun and nice to talk to people wherever and whenever we could. Just as we did with the game, release notes allowed us to find a little crevice and wad up a bit of delight and stuff it in there. Because why not?

Huge thanks to Anna for helping to put this post together. If you're now thinking "wait, can she do this for my company?" then the answer is yes, she can and will. You can find her at https://annapickard.com.