Getting new users actively involved in your open source project is one of the most important aspects of community development. A healthy open source project welcomes new contributors of all kinds and makes it easy for them to contribute. Prospective contributors feel welcome and are guided towards their first contribution, whatever their skills are. My OSS Watch colleague Steve Lee pointed out the website of LibreOffice; they managed to do this very well.
Care for your users
It’s very unlikely that any new contributor to the project will not have used the software before starting to contribute. Getting people to contribute therefore starts with helping your users. LibreOffice has a lot of channels to assist users in getting started and getting the most out of the software, ranging from mailing lists to IRC channels, FAQ and documentation. Having a dedicated and clearly marked ‘Get Help’ section on your website will help new users to get going and feel welcome.
It’s not all about code
As we’ve discussed before, contributing to an open source project is about much more than just writing code. Make sure you highlight all the different ways in which your users can get involved in your project. LibreOffice provides a nice example of how to do this. All of their documentation carry a Creative Commons licence, so don’t be afraid to copy from their pages, as long as you make sure you acknowledge them and stick a compatible CC licence on your documentation as well.
Lower the barriers to entry
So let’s say you would like to get more developers on your project (and you should!). It can be quite difficult for developers to know what they can do to help out. Having that clearly marked out is therefore important. A first code contribution is usually an easy hack like removing dead code or adding a unit test. Some people even argue that you should leave some of those easy hacks in, just to tempt potential contributors to fix it! If you can, list the easy hacks on your wiki, like the LibreOffice project has done.
But my project is really small!
Especially when your project is small, it’s important to involve your users and get more contributors. You may not have all the channels (like mailling lists and forums and IRC and FAQs) available from the start, but you can improve this gradually. For example, if your project is hosted on GoogleCode or SourceForge, it is really easy to set up a wiki so you have the framework in place. That is an easy win and will encourage users to contribute. And don’t feel afraid to ask people to contribute. If they are providing a good solution to a common problem on a mailing list, ask them if they’d put it on the wiki.