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ASK: The Evolution of a (big) Question

Part 1 in a series exploring how we use the Engineering Design Process to create Momentix. The first step in the engineering design process is ASK.

Momentix began as a question: What do I want to do with my life?

The summer after my sophomore year of college, a few friends and I received a grant to spend 15 days canoeing through the Yukon, Canada, where the summer sun never sets and the moose population far exceeds the human one. Canoeing hundreds of miles provided moments of joy and learning and fear, but most consistently it brought large stretches of silence and boredom (something I rarely encountered in the chaos of 20-something-year-old life.)

The trip marked my halfway point through college. I’d already decided to major in physics, but for the first time I had space to ask myself, “What do I want to do with my life after that?” An unexplored and frighteningly open-ended question.

Start with Big Questions

Whether it’s an engineering conundrum or a life decision, the design process begins the same way: asking a question. Some people refer to this first step as ‘defining the problem,’ but thinking of it as a question feels more expansive and positive to me. This guiding question will change and narrow, so don’t worry if it feels overwhelming or vague.

“What do I want to do with my life?” branched into considering “What did I used to want to be when I grew up?” In preschool, it was a mailman-- I loved the idea of sorting all the mail into distinct bins. For another period it was a marine biologist. After that, and for the majority of my childhood, I wanted to be a scientist or an inventor. This manifested itself through fort-building in the woods behind my house, taking apart old electronics, and designing and building a variety of contraptions: prank machines, squirrel-catching-machines, an automatic-hand-raising-machine, and of course, plenty of Rube Goldberg Machines.

This mechanical fascination never left me. Even as I sat in the back of the canoe, I considered how a paddle is just a lever: my grip acting as the fulcrum and our propulsion forward a product of the mechanical advantage. Floating down the river and reflecting on my failed duct-tape and cardboard attempts at Rube Goldberg Machines I had made as a kid, I imagined the first conceptions of what would become Momentix.

And so the question evolved. “How can I design something that makes Rube Goldberg Machines easier to make?” I thought about it constantly, drawing ideas on the back of receipt paper at the liquor store I worked at the rest of that summer and watching what felt like every chain reaction video on Youtube. As I cycled through the design process focused on this question, Momentix began to take shape: wooden pieces that could be intuitively combined to make levers, pulleys, and ramps.

The middle of the night in the Yukon + Liquor store receipt brainstorming

Allow the Question to Evolve

Whatever question starts the design process will inevitably change and narrow, branching into multiple possibilities. While I could have reconsidered my future as a mailman or marine biologist, focusing on my fascination with Rube Goldberg machines and childhood desire to be an inventor felt the most natural.

The underlying idea was always to make this a business of some kind, a way to share and validate the design. But before I could sell my soul to capitalism, I had to consider how a business could generate not just profit, but meaning: “If I’m going to pursue this, how can it be more than just another toy?” Not-so-coincidentally, this is when I met Anna in the climbing gym, where our first conversation centered around how learning physics was, in many ways, needlessly difficult. More people would pursue physics, we conjectured, if the culture was more welcoming and collaborative, encouraging failure and question-asking right alongside sharp math skills.

Define the constraints

Maybe it’s a project budget or a material limitation. For more abstract questions like the one I was considering, the constraints were similarly abstract. Either way, constraints help shape the question and ensure its resolvability.

And so then the question became “How can our designs make physics more accessible? How can Rube Goldberg Machines be used as a tool to make physics more collaborative and creative?”

This was the ultimate question that shaped Momentix. Since, we’ve encountered plenty of other questions: How do we make this a profitable business? How can we make Momentix gender-flexible? How can we design something that kids want to play with? What do kids even like to do nowadays? Could we make a machine to launch a water balloon off my balcony? How do we communicate our story in 5 minutes or less? What materials should we use? What should we name our company? How do we design packaging that controls the user experience?

Not every question launched us into a full-blown engineering-design-process breakdown, but these questions were always the starting point. Giving myself space to think big, letting the question evolve naturally, and defining the constraints has allowed me to sanely process the huge range of questions and problems (not just engineering ones).

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