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I'm currently staying in a rural area in a small cabin as part of an internship, I got up this morning and it was so cold my milk had become a thick slurry, yuck. However to me this is just simply a design challenge, I love finding minor problems around the home and trying to find unique or interesting solutions to them, and I know I'm not alone as many of my peers at university enjoy this as well.

The thought came to me then, why don't we try something similar on Engineering.Stackexchange? I know that these sites exist on the premise of Question and Answer but I don't think this deviates far from that premise. Additionally, the Code Golf stack exchange performs on a similar premise already and it's performing quite well.

So to summarise:

Should we allow questions that pose engineering challenges rather than asking specific questions about the field of engineering, provided they supply enough detail?

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    $\begingroup$ Sounds like you've got great conditions for making ice cream. Too bad it's too cold for ice cream.... $\endgroup$ – user16 Apr 20 '15 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ Too right :D Glen $\endgroup$ – Sam Weston Apr 20 '15 at 0:49
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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea in principle, but I'm not sure how it would work in practice. What would one of these engineering challenges look like? What would the answers look like? PCG has a fairly rigid structure where the questioner gives an easy to asses way to calculate who 'won'; how could that be emulated here? $\endgroup$ – Chris Mueller Apr 20 '15 at 14:20
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I agree with Glen that this would have to be a separate site. Beyond which, I don't think PPCG is a good analogy, for reasons I'll elaborate on below. An Engineering puzzles and challenges site would have to operate by its own rules and get through its own growing pains in order to succeed. I like the idea that our community could have a relationship with such a site because I do like puzzles and so do many of our users.

Why doesn't Code Golf work as a proof-of-concept?

Code golfing became a "thing" on Stack Overflow (SO) way back in 2009, prior to the launch of Stack Exchange 2.0, and some users considered it disruptive even then. The trend was moved to Programmers SE for a while before it got its own site, but not without leaving behind some maintenance work.

The fact that there's an active beta site for Programming Puzzles & Code Golf (PPCG) has a lot to do with the overlap between SO and PPCG—in terms of domain, user base and technology. We are not an established resource in the engineering world; we've been around for less than three months. SO had been around for years already when the PPCG beta phase began.

The challenges on PPCG are also judged by objective criteria that are simple to assess using the same technology required to compete and access the site. Engineering puzzles—the interesting ones, at least—could be much, much more difficult to judge because prototyping and testing are much more involved in our typical problem domains than in the programming world.

Thinking about opportunities for expansion

We identified the challenge of accepting Naive Design Questions (NDQ) two months ago today. The fact that users keep bringing us NDQ is strong evidence that there's a desire to engage in some kind of collaborative design process, and we are seen as a potential outlet. That is exactly the sort of evidence that justifies turning a site into a network, launching a spin-off site or developing a parallel, off-site resource to expand what the site can do.

Those sorts of expansions have been on my mind since the NDQ discussion. From the very beginning, some of our users have wanted a different resource out of Engineering SE, one I'd argue we can't effectively provide on this platform. There are practical differences between programming Q&A and engineering Q&A, such as how much easier it is to evaluate and mark-up source code on this platform than, say, construction blueprints and mechanical schematics. Working through these differences and finding our way to a mature, established Engineering SE should be the primary focus of this beta.

At the same time, I would love for us to have an ongoing conversation about to what extent this platform enables us to collectively solve our engineering problems at work, at school and at home, and to what extent it limits us in doing the same. Problems based on naive designs or fun puzzles are still problems, after all. As much as our Goal with a capital G right now should be on working within those limitations, figuring out how to grow beyond those limitations could be a reasonable Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

What does this mean for Engineering Challenge Questions?

I think we could revisit this feature request in the future, when Engineering SE itself is more mature. I'd recommend holding off on an Area 51 proposal until there's strong evidence that users want this—personally, I'd want to see that we're regularly having to turn away quality content that could work for the proposal. (Of course, it's not up to me—anyone can start a proposal if they like.)

What we could talk about doing right now is something that has already been suggested in the chat room—namely, weekly topic challenges. While this doesn't involve engineering puzzles, it does challenge you to ask and answer at your best, and if done correctly can give a site a nice boost. If that sounds appealing, we can open another Meta question in which to start gathering ideas for challenge topics.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a lie! We've been around for EXACTLY three months! $\endgroup$ – Trevor Archibald Apr 20 '15 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Check the timestamps. ;) $\endgroup$ – Air Apr 20 '15 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ Fantastic answer, I hope this does become a spin off site but you're right, might be a good idea to hold off on the proposal for now. Perhaps when Engineering has been a full site for a while we can put it forward. $\endgroup$ – Sam Weston Apr 25 '15 at 22:39
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I don't think that Engineering Challenge questions would be a good fit for the site currently. There's a couple of lines of thought behind my thinking.

  • As you stated, Engineering is an SE Q&A site focused on answering specific problems. While some measure of subjectivity or opinion is allowed, the underlying premise is that someone presents a specific problem and the "best" answer to the problem rises to the top from being voted up. Arguably, answers to challenges would also rise to the top but I fear this would become more of a popularity contest reflecting the quality of writing as opposed to the quality of the underlying engineering mechanics. Likewise, challenge answers open up a huge host of questions regarding practicality or feasibility of the answers.

  • Engineering Challenge questions also flirt too closely to "Naive Design Questions" (NDQ), which are off-topic for the site. The core reason NDQs are off-topic is that they are generally too broad. Allowing Engineering Challenge questions could provide a convenient loophole to otherwise allow content that's off-topic for the site. For example:

    • "How do I make a katana?" is off-topic because it's a) about swordsmithing and b) too-broad.
    • "Engineering Challenge - Design a process for an advanced DIY'er to make katanas." is just as broad and off-topic, but now it's an Engineering Challenge.
  • CodeGolf has dedicated focus, which is what makes their challenges work. The whole site (including awarded reputation) is built around code-golfing. Likewise, there are arbitrary and contrived rules built into the site in order to make the code-golfing work. I have a really hard time seeing how that would work on a mixed SE site. New visitors to the site would likely be very confused by the differing rules for questions based upon silly little labels (aka ) associated with the question.

  • I think that mixing the audiences would also be problematic. CodeGolf attracts a certain kind of developer who enjoys those puzzles. If we look at SE Technology sites, sorted by age we see that CodeGolf lags many of its peers for number of users, questions, traffic, etc... That's not to say CodeGolf is bad, on the contrary, it's a lot of fun. But StackExchange attracts experts who want answers, not puzzles. SE is there to help them do their job, not provide a diversion. I fear that a mixed site would drive away the experts we want in order to build our site.

So, I'm sorry to burst this little thought bubble with respect to Engineering.SE. Good engineers are known for always thinking of different solutions and taking different perspectives on common problems to find new approaches, which is to be commended. But the site mechanics get in the way of incorporating that sort of an idea into the existing site. And I do think that Engineering Challenges would be a fun idea, but it should be as a separate site or Area51 proposal.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't disagree with you overall, but on your first point, I think most answers get judged on that at some level, because the best engineer in the world isn't worth anything if he can't communicate his ideas. $\endgroup$ – Trevor Archibald Apr 20 '15 at 15:51

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