Curiosity is powerful. Psychologists tell us that curiosity enhances intelligence and increases perseverance. Being curious propels us to deeper engagement, superior performance, and more meaningful goals.
Curiosity plays a necessary but often tacit role in design. Many design practitioners cite empathy as the first steps in their design process. While empathy is important to the field of design and designers, in order to understand others, we have to be actively curious about what life might be like outside our own experiences. A sense of curiosity for the people we design for lays a durable foundation for deep empathy.
This article will broadly address the following questions:
- How can we be more curious?
- Is it possible to design things that invite curiosity?
- And, just what is curiosity?
Curiosity is commonly defined as the recognition, pursuit, and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous events. Curiosity is a feeling of interest in a situation where a potential exists for learning. We exhibit a level of patience and want to see what might happen. German psychologist Hans-Georg Voss succinctly describes curiosity as “motivation to explore.”
It is revealing that no religion in the world has a deity devoted to curiosity. Perhaps this is because curiosity is a phenomenon natural to humans but is also rare, much like salt. In fact, curiosity is very much like table salt:
- Both salt and curiosity can add flavor to our lives.
- Salt is essential for life in general. So, too, is being curious.
- Salt, when placed in a cut, causes pain. Curiosity has the potential to cause us pain or difficulty.
- In ages past, some cultures placed salt, rather than sand, in an hourglass to tell time. So, too, we commission our curiosity to help us pass time in moments of boredom.
- Salt preserves food by removing moisture and killing bacteria. Curiosity, in the right contexts, can preserve our lives by stretching our minds to new ideas and innovative solutions.
- Humans release salt in sweat glands and from tear ducts. Like salt, curiosity is something we humans can naturally produce.
Figure 1. Curiosity shares at least six qualities of common table salt. (Images used with permission from an Envato Elements License.)
Alt. text for accessibility: A collage of photos: bowl of salt with the caption “adds flavor,” sleeping baby with the caption “essential to life,” hand with a bandage and “can cause pain,” hourglass with “help pass time,” sliced salami with “aids in preservation,” and closeup of a person with a closed eye with a teardrop with “naturally produce” as the caption.
If curiosity is something we can naturally produce, the question is then: how?
Psychologists agree that curiosity is an innate human emotion. Understanding how the emotion of curiosity comes to be is an important foundation to designing moments of curiosity.
The Emotion Combinations that Create Curiosity
Emotions are complex. Over the past 100 years, psychologists have proposed anywhere from 3 to 11 foundational emotions. Psychologist and researcher Robert Plutchik developed the Wheel of Emotions, a visual framework to describe human emotions. In the Wheel of Emotions (see Figure 2), eight basic emotion dimensions (inner circle) allow at least 24 common emotion combinations (outer circles). Much like colors on a color wheel, which combines colors to make different colors, basic emotions also combine to form other emotions.
Figure 2. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions shows eight basic emotions that combine to create additional emotions. (Animation created by Cassini Nazir based off the original image in Plutchik’s The Nature of Emotions.)
The experience of an emotion is the result of complex sequences of events. Plutchik organizes emotions by how frequently we experience them: often, sometimes, or seldom. Curiosity is a sometimes-felt emotion.
The base emotions of trust and surprise combine to yield curiosity (see Figure 3). Trust means that curiosity manifests as a process requiring a bond or relationship between a person and another person, object, or system. Trust also implies that curiosity involves some level of vulnerability and that trust may be broken or abused. The emotion of surprise is a response to the unexpected and forces the individual to stop, re-evaluate, and reorient their thinking or recalibrate notions. Note that both emotions—trust and surprise—are needed to cultivate the emotion of curiosity. Interestingly, in Plutchik’s model the opposite of curiosity is cynicism, which is a combination of disgust and anticipation.
Figure 3. The base emotions of trust and surprise combine to yield curiosity. The opposite of curiosity is cynicism, made of disgust and anticipation.
Practical Ways to Cultivate Curiosity
Do you lead a team? Want your team to be more curious?
- Cultivate trust on your team.
- Give them consistent support.
- Then, change up common routines every so often to create positive surprises.
Want to be more curious yourself? Surprises are all around us waiting to be discovered. The world isn’t lacking in wonders. We are often lacking a sense of a wonder.
Changing routines encourages curiosity. Our environment shapes much of our behavior. A pre-COVID study (The Nature of Habit in Daily Life, PDF) found that we spend most of our days in just a few locations where it becomes easy to form routines and habits, not all of them good.
- Next time you drive home, take a completely different route. This forces the brain to interpret new data and create new neural pathways, inviting curiosity in.
- Make a plan to systematically introduce yourself to new things. Do something new once a week—try a new restaurant or a completely new meal at your favorite restaurant.
What Kind of Curious Are You?
When discussing curiosity, it is common to ask ourselves, “How curious are you?” We should instead ask, “How are you curious?”
Researcher Todd Kashdan and his colleagues discovered that curiosity is multi-dimensional. Their research discovered five distinct dimensions of curiosity, called the Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale.
These five dimensions help explain how individuals experience curiosity in different ways:
- Joyous Exploration is being consumed with wonder about the world and its fascinating features. Because this is a pleasurable state, people in it seem to enjoy life.
- Deprivation Sensitivity is recognizing a gap in knowledge, the filling of which offers relief. This type of curiosity doesn’t necessarily feel good, but people who experience it, enjoy pondering complex ideas and work relentlessly to solve problems.
- Stress Tolerance is the willingness to accept and even harness the anxiety associated with novelty. People who have a higher degree of stress tolerance see information gaps, experience wonder, and are interested in others but are unlikely to step forward and explore.
- Social Curiosity is talking, listening, and observing others to learn what they are thinking and doing. Humans are inherently social animals, and the most effective and efficient way to determine whether someone is friend or foe is to gain information. Some may even snoop, eavesdrop, or gossip to do so.
- Thrill Seeking is being willing to take physical, social, and financial risks to acquire varied, complex, and intense experiences. For people with this capacity, the anxiety of confronting novelty is something to be amplified, not reduced.
We all have each of these five dimensions in our personality.
Kashdan’s five-dimensional scale helps us understand the dimensions of curiosity. Not everyone is curious about the same things in the same ways, so Kashdan and his team identified the following four distinct types of curious people:
- The Fascinated: People with inquisitive minds who are social, enthusiastic, who love to be in-the-know, and who thrive on the unpredictable and see life as an adventure.
- Problem Solvers: Hard-working individuals, with a core value of independence, who love to learn while working relentlessly at problems they feel must be solved.
- Empathizers: People who love to understand why people do what they do. They often prefer to observe what is going on around them instead of participating.
- Avoiders: These individuals demonstrate little curiosity and confidence. They shy away from things they don’t know or don’t understand, avoid confrontation when possible, and lack understanding of their emotional life.
Figure 4. The Five-Dimensional Curiosity (5DC) Scale (x-axis) and four unique clusters of curious people (y-axis) shows intersections of curiosity. For example, those who demonstrate socially curiosity tend to also be in the sub-group of empathizers. Visualization adapted from “The Five-Dimensional Curiosity scale” by Todd Kashdan, et al. (2018).
The Five-Dimensional Curiosity scale and the four clusters of curious people reminds us that curiosity is multifaceted and experienced differently by individuals.
What Kind of Curious is the Design Community?
For World Information Architecture Day 2021, we created a survey based on Kashdan’s Five-Dimensional Curiosity scale (5DC). Participants from United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, the Middle East, and Australia completed the survey (n = 96). We scored each participant that completed the study as low, medium, or high on each of the five dimensions of curiosity using Kashdan’s scale.
Figure 5. Preliminary results from a study of 96 designers worldwide demonstrate how designers are curious. The design community tends to demonstrate the trait of social curiosity the most and stress tolerance the least.
While the study is ongoing, these preliminary results indicate a few things:
- Designers more commonly demonstrate social curiosity and joyous exploration Because designers create products, services, and systems for audiences, it is understandable that they demonstrate some level of inherent social curiosity about how these audiences might interact with the designed systems.
- The curiosity dimension designers identify with the least is stress tolerance. This agrees with Kashdan’s research—stress tolerance seems to be inversely related to social curiosity.
More research is needed to understand the ways in which designers manifest curiosity and–more importantly–why. The curiosity survey remains open. More participants are being solicited on the website at http://unknowing.design.
Inviting Curiosity: The Framework
Although curiosity is a seldom-felt and not an often-felt emotion (see Figure 3), there are ways it can be coaxed to come forward. The Inviting Curiosity framework describes a rudimentary pattern of invitation-response–reward that can be used by designers to provoke moments of curiosity.
Figure 6. The Inviting Curiosity framework: invitation, response, and reward made possible trust early on and surprise after the inflection point.
Curiosity offers few straight lines.
Invitation: Through an object, product, service, or system, the designer extends an invitation to someone to be curious. Invitations adopt a variety of common approaches that can elicit a spectrum of emotions. Sustained attention is a necessary catalyst for curiosity—without it, curiosity quickly evaporates. Note that invitations are not always perceived as invitations and, as a result, may go unnoticed, unseen, or ignored.
Remember that the emotion of curiosity defined by Plutchik is the combination of trust and surprise. The underlying emotional appeal needed here is trust in order for individuals to accept the invitation.
Response: Most invitations require individuals to act or respond in some way. Invitations can be accepted, rejected, or ignored. Some invitations may be accepted but never acted upon. For example, a wrapped gift can be accepted, but the recipient may never unwrap it.
If accepted and acted upon, there is then an inflection point where the other necessary emotion of surprise begins to be felt. Screenwriters understand very well the importance of surprise. A golden rule of storytelling is to give the audience what they want, just not how they expect it to happen. In order for the individual to not be disappointed soon after the surprise, a reward must be offered.
Reward: The inflection point marks the beginning of where curiosity can be meaningfully engaged and satisfyingly rewarded. This reward may be informational, sensory, or experiential—or a combination of all three. In some cases, the response may also be the reward.
Time is an important factor of the reward. Rewards may occur immediately after the response (such as the immediate sensory reward of trying a new dessert) or long after (a joke that took a long time to understand).
Note that not every response is rewarded. Kicking over a rock may reveal a diamond underneath, add dust to our shoes, or uncover a scorpion.
Figure 7. An example of the Inviting Curiosity framework applied to the game of peekaboo.
The game of peekaboo is a classic example of the Inviting Curiosity framework. In Figure 7, a grandparent covers their face with their hands in order to invite curiosity in a child. The grandparent uses the approach of playfulness to elicit inquisitiveness in the child. This interaction would not be possible without trust between both parties.
The child’s responds by maintaining eye contact of the grandparent’s hands, accepting the grandparent’s invitation of curiosity. The child could have looked away, been distracted, thrown a tantrum, or any number of responses. This marks the inflection point of the interaction, and a surprise ensues.
Once the grandparent opens their hands, both grandparent and child are reward with the emotions of joy, surprise, and the feeling of connection between the two. This interaction may be repeated several times with little diminishing returns.
Another example that illustrates the Inviting Curiosity framework is evident in a video from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Their Care-E prototype—a friendly luggage trolley—invites curiosity in a passenger and meaningfully rewards that curiosity. Can you find the framework? There are at least four rewards along the way.
At present, there are very few tools, frameworks, and resources in the designer’s toolbelt with which to design experiences that encourage curiosity. We hope that the Inviting Curiosity framework becomes an additional tool for designers and design educators.
We believe curiosity is a worthy contender to unseat empathy as the driving impetus for designers. The English word curiosity has its origins in the Latin word cūra, which means to care. That curiosity embraces and encompasses caring has powerful implications. Noted philosopher Milton Mayeroff defines caring as acting on empathy, as being able to understand another’s world as if you were that person. A disciplined curiosity can bring purposeful care both to those we design for as well as that which we design.
We hope to further extend this framework, allowing designers to kindle curiosities and ignite imaginations. We welcome your participation. Stay curious.