Stranger Danger: When New Ideas Hijack Your Project

a grown up two children and the words "say no to strangers"

In this case, I mean strange ideas, not actual strangers. And by strange ideas, I mean new ones. Image courtesy _chrisUK/Flickr

Project creep.  Before pursuing a DH master’s at Trinity, I hadn’t heard this succinct term for a phenomenon which endangered so many of my previous undertakings.  It disguises itself as too much ambition or too little planning, but in reality belies a sheer naiveté regarding what is feasible based on resources, time, and/or one’s own abilities.  In hindsight,[1] my internship at Marsh’s has been especially instructive in the art of becoming a human creep-seeking missile.[2]

Signs of Project Creep #1: Unfamiliarity with tools

As I learned the hard way, if you don’t have a thorough knowledge of how your tools work before drafting your work plan, you have already experienced project creep.  In my original project proposal, I said I would build a working mock-up for my entire website and perform a usability test on said mock-up in about two weeks.  I sunk a few of my ~5 hours a week into researching usability test options, and then a few more hours choosing a mock-up tool, and then still a few more hours figuring out how to use MockFlow.  Turns out, I had done a terrible job researching wire framing tools; the free version of MockFlow only allows the creation of four pages.  (I needed at least 8, and ended up building 11.)[3]

Additionally, partway through the design process, I realized the futility of the endeavor upon which I was embarking.  Because I hadn’t used Omeka before, I did not know what design limitations it would impose, inevitably rendering aspects of my mock-up useless.  I based my design decisions on the look of the toolbars from a previous Marsh’s Library Omeka installation using its in-house style, but couldn’t be sure my choices were actually feasible.  And so, for the sake of sticking to my pre-planned milestone deadlines, I mostly skipped the usability test.[4]

A sample of one of my pages from MockFlow.

A sample of one of my pages from MockFlow. The colors and navigation bars are modelled on Marsh’s in-house style, but otherwise the functionality is very basic.

Signs of Project Creep #2: It’s all too interesting

Scenario 1: Interest in your source material is vital for successful project completion.  As the many students whose blood has been left cold while pounding out a paper on a dull subject can attest, nothing kills your drive like boredom.  And so, I was delighted to be working on a subject (Japan) which had fascinated me since my days as a barely-teenaged, Pocky-eating, Ramune-drinking and costume-wearing anime nerd.  Add in deliciously old books in the two languages I can reliably read (English and French), and you have a recipe for hours of focused “flow.”

Scenario 2: Interest in your source material is anathema to successful project completion.  As the many students whose love of a particular research topic has become far too many hours in the library can attest, nothing curbs your ability to manage your time like fascination.  And so, I was quickly pulled into the whirlpool of endless research, spending far, far too much time reading and photographing old books, and stumbling upon new connections, new stories, new ideas which I felt morally compelled to present to the user.[5]

My mandate from Marsh’s was to take a simple, 18 item analogue exhibit, and turn it into a simple, 18 item digital exhibit.  Instead, I found myself photographing pages and pages of English and French with the intention of transcribing and translating all of the wonderful stories I had the privilege to discover within.  Because of  the time and effort involved in gathering and transcribing, I grew far too attached to my material.  The result?  When I finally built the website, it contained too much text, a design flaw I’m still seeking to rectify.  Additionally, I ran out of time for building some of the more creative elements into my project, such as georectified maps or interactive timelines, as I had originally envisioned.

Not every side track was a dud, of course.  Spending lots of time with the material means that I have a firm grasp of what I’m working with, which should (theoretically) improve the quality of my output.  Additionally, I spent a bit of time developing a gazetteer which helps users translate the archaic place names found in the texts, and a Google map for locating them, a feature which would not have come about if I had not closely read the texts.[6]

page from Jean Crasset, Histoire de l’eglise du Japon

Page from Jean Crasset, Histoire de l’eglise du Japon. No one told me to transcribe and translate pages of archaic French. I just thought it would be a great plan.

Signs of Project Creep #3: Primal screaming

The most obvious sign of project creep, of course, is your own mounting existential panic.  While my initial work plan left about a month to build the website, my time management decisions ultimately left about two weeks to build what can only be called a rough draft.  I was not idle for the previous four months … I simply allowed project creep to be king, ignoring missed deadlines and my own anxiety in favor of some “abstract ideal” academic goal.  Do not do this.  Listen to your own worries, and cut back as needed to meet your initial goals, not your new ones.  And do not be afraid to ask for help.  There were several moments where I was not sure of a direction to take, and if I had asked for advice from my internship advisors, I probably would have made better decisions.  Learn from me, young grasshopper.

Because of poor planning at the beginning, and poor time keeping in the middle, I did not meet all of my milestones perfectly.  But, I still have something to show for my labors.  The website isn’t live yet, so I can’t link you to it, but here’s an idea of where I’m at for the moment:

sample page from omeka

Part of one of the pages I have built. The design is still pretty simple, but the items are uploaded, in place, and ready for prettification.

When in Rome …

Lucky for me, this project creep horror story has more of a Sixth Sense kind of conclusion than, say, Cabin in the Woods.  My project did not turn out as planned, but I have made peace with the results I have and the lessons learned.  As an added bonus (/reward for bad behavior), Sue is allowing me to continue my work through the end of my program.  With an extra few months, I hope to come to a deeper understanding of the back-end of Omeka, and to realize some of my “make it pretty” goals.

To conclude, let me invite any future TCD DH students to gather ’round Grandma Lily and hear my sage words.  Heed my advice, young ones, and play with your tools first.  Before your write your work plan.  Well before you start building.  Come up with a small little baby project[7] and just play.  Get a sense of how things work.  Ask lots of questions.  Then plan your project.  Hand the project plan in late if you need more time to understand your tools.  I give you permission.[8]  If you’re feeling uncomfortable with missed deadlines, just remember the brilliance of Douglas Adams:

“I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

If the Hitchhiker’s Guide was written with a complete disregard for due dates, there is no particular reason your project can’t be, either.  But once your work plan is written, keep to it.  Because when project creep steals your hours, there is no getting them back.

timeline of actual work flow

I hadn’t made an infographic yet. This seemed important. How did I do?


[1] Aren’t you happy I didn’t make a reference like, “which is always 20/20”?  Whoops.  Just did.

[2] It’s like a heat-seeking missle, but for project creep.  (Don’t worry; I’m slow-clapping in my head, too.)

[3] I have no idea what good free tools exist for mock-ups, if any.  Suggestions in the comments, please?

[4] “Mostly” means myself and Sue took a gander and deemed it “good enough.”

[5] I still feel this tug, and am not sure how to curb it.  Digital museum folks, any tips for definitively deciding what not to share with your users?  Share them in the comments.

[6] Whether this feature is boundlessly fascinating to anyone other than myself remains to be seen.

[7] For an example, check out the practice website I built for my previous post.

[8] Don’t actually do this without consulting your course director.


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