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April 11, 2023 · 22 min read

Season 3, Ep. 21 – The life-changing power of a good UI, with Dennis Lenard, CEO, Creative Navy

There’s often a good deal of heart and soul poured into design, but for Creative Navy CEO Dennis Lenard, the data behind the design is even more important. This week, Faith talks with him about high-stakes user interfaces, building a team of people who want to learn, and why choosing bread types by thumbnail image is as hard as it sounds.


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Faith (00:05):

(CHURCH BELLS RINGING) You’ve got bells ringing.

Dennis (00:06):

I’ve got some bells ringing. They should stop eventually.

Faith (00:11):

<Laugh>. Where are you based?

Dennis (00:13):

Germany now.

Faith (00:15):

Cool. Germany was actually one of my favorite places to visit. I studied in Switzerland.

Dennis (00:22):

Oh, really? (Faith: Yeah.) Oh, okay.

Faith (00:22):

And we went to Berlin for like, a school trip, (Dennis: Yeah.) and I remember just being like, dreading the trip a little bit, ‘cause I was like, “Man…Berlin…” Like, the joke is nobody walks, even if there’s no cars coming on the street, nobody will cross the street until the little sign comes up. (Dennis: <Laugh>. Yeah.) And I was like, they just seem like a bunch of rule followers. (Dennis: <Laugh>.) And it was the coolest city. It’s one of the only ones that I would do like, a trip back to, so.

Dennis (00:53):

Oh, wow. That’s a fantastic compliment. (Faith: <Laugh>.) They should put that on their poster, but (Faith: On the website <laugh>.) it is a very hip city; (Faith: Yeah.) that’s the interesting bit. So if you like that sort of, you know, lots of small things going on, then it gives you, there.

Faith (01:08):

It is. It’s very hip. And I remember it being very accessible. Like, it felt like I could (Dennis: Yeah.) kind of see the whole city, and as a tourist, you know, who didn’t really understand how any of it works. (Dennis: <Laugh>.) So, yeah, cool. I’ll leave a Yelp review for Berlin <laugh>.

Dennis (01:24):

<Laugh>. Yes. I’m sure they need it.

Faith (01:27):

Well, Dennis, it is so nice to meet you. I’m so excited to talk to you today about your work at Creative Navy, and we’ll get into that. I think I’ll leave that intro to you, because I’m still learning. Am I cool enough to say “gooey”, or should I say G-U-I?

Dennis (01:46):

Oh, I wasn’t prepared for that. (Faith: <Laugh>.) I think you can, yeah. “Gooey” is a little bit friendlier.

Faith (01:52):

Yeah. It’s like “in the know”. Cool. (Dennis: Yeah.) So, you know, for the folks listening, we’ve got Dennis Lenard, who’s the CEO of Creative Navy. And Creative Navy is a design agency based in London, but the projects you all take on are very unique. But first, Dennis, I have never seen a rap sheet like yours. Abbey gave me the intro for you. So you have a background in law, economics, and philosophy, and of course, now, you’re leading Creative Navy. You contribute to courses at King’s College in London for UX design. You’ve had, you know, a large emphasis on data for your whole career, and a few projects you’ve been involved in over the last 15 years, this is wild, a radiation therapy system, mission control for satellites, explosion modeling software, minimally invasive blood pump, outboard engine controller, and big data analysis. That is, that is an unbelievable breadth of projects. So I’m excited to hear more about, you know, what it’s been like for you at Creative Navy. But yeah, to start, walk us through what is it that Creative Navy specializes in?

Dennis (03:10):

Well, what all those examples have in common is that they’re all quite complex (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) in terms of the software and in terms of what they do, but also they’re all professional interfaces. So you have people on the job using them to deliver certain outcomes, and of course, that means that the way people think in the situation is a lot different from, you know, how you behave in social media, which is just for fun. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So we specialize in these complex types of systems, mainly systems that are used by professionals or where the stakes are high. You gave a lot of examples from the medical industry, and we do a lot of that, from medical software to medical devices being used by doctors while they operate or while they care for patients in all these situations. And stakes are high, and so what we do and what is different about us compared to other designers is that we approach things in an evidence-based paradigm. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So that means that we try to make decisions based on data, based on facts, based on repeated efforts of understanding reality and challenging the design that we create with that reality. And all of this thinking comes from cognitive science, because my main major actually is cognitive science. That’s (Faith: <Laugh>.) the focus. The rest was just because I was curious.

Faith (04:29):

It was fun <laugh>.

Dennis (04:30):

<Laugh>. Yeah. I thought it was fun when I started, you know? Everything sounds great in the beginning. (Faith: Yeah.) But this thinking about how can we create something that is actually feasible in terms of how people can use it is very important, because I think people tend to overestimate what they can do or what others can do. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) We have a very positive perspective over us, but actually the human being is very limited in what it can do, so we need to, you know, as designers, we need to do more to compensate for that.

Faith (05:00):

And, you know, obviously, you mentioned the common thread amongst all those projects where the stakes are high. And I talk to a lot of designers, but most of what we talk about is, you know, website optimization, right? How can you improve your conversion rate or run a cool new experiment on your software? And the stakes there are, if you fail, you try again. Right? It’s kind of, it’s no big deal. Everybody wants to win, but failure isn’t fatal. And in the work you’re doing, you know, the North Star is like, we need to be sure that we’re not making fatal mistakes. And that’s a lot of pressure, like you said.

Dennis (05:43):

Yeah. Oh, of course, we are lucky that, you know, the designs we get don’t just get released on the market like that. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Perhaps you would do that with a website and, you know, it gives you the agility, but with medical devices, you have to go through a lot of testing and all of that. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) But of course, error prevention is an important thing with all of these projects, but it’s about more than that, because you want people to be productive, and, ultimately, what you want them to do is to focus their mental capacity on the task, (Faith: Right.) you know, at that point where they can really add value, rather than trying to figure out the UI. I’m always bugged about, you know, how many digital systems we have today, and they’re all critical. You cannot live life without digital systems, especially if you are in a job that relies on them. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So if they’re poorly designed, we place a huge burden on people every day to, you know, go through inefficient processes and to try to interact with software that doesn’t really work properly when it should. It’s basic infrastructure that we have to rely on.

Faith (06:44):

Right. I think when a lot of folks think about design as a profession or as a specialty, the thing they think about is the creative process and a bunch of kind of artsy fartsy people in a room making sketches and, you know, being creative when, in reality, particularly in your line of work, but really with all design, the process is heavily rooted in data. I know few people who are more obsessed with data than designers, right? So, I’d love to hear your take, kind of, regardless of the design task at hand, whether it’s super complex, like what you all work on or something, a little lower stakes. What are some mistakes you see in terms of the final design when folks are approaching it from a place of assumption, rather than being rooted in data?

Dennis (07:35):

Well a typical issue is misjudging user behavior, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) so that’s when you think people will do something, but actually they will do something else. And you know, a great example of that in an environment that’s easy to understand is e-commerce. You could intuitively think about the process of people just coming in, looking for a product, maybe looking at another product, adding into the cart, and checking out. But if you look at the data, that’s absolutely not what people do. I mean, that’s a minority of all the sessions, right? What people actually do is they browse on the website in a way that seems erratic and like it makes no sense. And then eventually some of them add something to the cart, and then you’re happy. So of course, the secret is to try to understand what all those erratic patterns mean, and to try to see what are some patterns within this universe of data, and then to make decisions from that to improve the design so that people can accomplish better goals. And I think we’ve all seen the evolution of e-commerce from what it was 10 years ago to what it is today, and that’s exactly this type of evolution, based on data that reveals the actual reality of people, of what people are doing.

Faith (08:46):

Mmm. Yeah, I mean, I’m sure after 15 years in the industry, you have lots of examples of times you were surprised when you thought for sure the data would reveal that people would behave in one way, and in fact, they behaved in a different way. Are there any stories that come to mind of times you were surprised?

Dennis (09:06):

Oh, well, there are quite a lot. One of my favorite examples is when we did some work for a point of sales system. So that’s what clerks would use in a shop, this case in gas stations to just check out people and get paid. And so one of the assumptions, and it was really a view held by pretty much everybody in the project when we started, it was sort of, you know, you get a brief talking about a lot of general issues, and then one specific thing was, we want pictures of products in the tablet, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and that seemed like something that makes sense. You know, people would recognize an object much easier when they would see the picture rather than the word. But what we then learned was that actually, that’s not necessarily the case, because a lot of objects look very similar.

Dennis (09:52):

For example, bread, and you’ve lived in Switzerland, so you know how many types of bread there are. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And when you have a small thumbnail, you can easily mistake it, or the same is true for coffee. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So after a few rounds of testing, we ended up with having just word labels, and that was surprising, even to us in a way, even though, you know, after the fact you understand, oh, of course it makes sense for you to be this way, but in the beginning, the assumption is misleading. That’s actually the big danger of assumptions, because once you find out that it was wrong, you know why, and it completely makes sense, but before you get to that point, you’re completely blind. So at any moment in time, you’re probably holding a lot of assumptions that are completely earnest, but you don’t know.

Faith (10:32):

That’s fascinating. I think often of when I was in middle school, and one of the things we learn is how to operate in AED, right? (Dennis: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) So you’re taking a CPR class, and you learn how to operate an AED. And that was the first time I thought about design as like, the study of human behavior, because if you were to ask me today, “Hey, Faith, how do you turn an AED on, and how do you operate it?” I’d probably say, “I have no idea,” <laugh>. But I’m sure, I have to believe that the designers responsible for creating that, you know, understand what human instinct is, right? How humans tend to operate and behave. And of course, like, that needs to be rooted in data and study of human behavior and not just assumptions. So it’s a fascinating line of work.

Dennis (11:26):

It is, yeah. It’s also interesting how, you know, people change, because there’s change in the interfaces that we use, our expectations change. So suddenly, some things become possible that weren’t before, but also the other way around. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) We see this with medical devices, for example, where a lot of the assumptions or the basic way of thinking is let’s give doctors all the information that they may need to make a decision. And this used to be best practice for a very long time, but now we’re seeing doctors saying, “No, stop giving us all that information.” (Faith: <Laugh>.) “We want simple interfaces like everybody else,” (Faith: Yeah.) “because we actually want to focus on the patient, not on the interface.” And that, of course, creates a challenge for designers, because if you’re saying, “I have plenty data points to display on this device, and I show them all at once, I just show them all at once.” (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) But if I suddenly have to think about use cases and what type of decisions do they want to make, what type of information do they need, and so on, it gets a lot more complicated. And then the task of the designer isn’t so much the visual aspect of the design, it’s understanding people, their context, in a way that is really in tune with reality, rather than just creating a fictional story about what you think they might want to do.

Faith (12:40):

I’m curious, I mean, the nature of your work crosses so many boundaries of expertise, right? You’re working in health tech in some cases with medical devices, you know, mechanical engineering in some cases, data science, obviously UX and design, and of course, there’s a few unicorns out in the world who can say, “I have experience in all those things,” but I would assume most folks who you bring onto your team are deep in one area, and in the rest it’s sort of, it’s learned, you know, as they work. How do you think about that division of skill and experience when you’re hiring folks for your team?

Dennis (13:26):

You know, we have this belief, but it’s really based on our experience, those skills you can train for, but there are certain qualities that affect the way you relate to your work and even, you know, the way you develop those skills that are more important in the long term. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So we look at those, let’s say, a willingness to do the work, or hard work, or to work a lot, of course, not overworking, but the point is being able to be persistent in the work, even if it stops being fun. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Another very important thing is liking to learn, and that’s something that’s, you know, most young people I think like to learn, but then eventually, you stop liking it that much, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and so if you keep doing that for, you know, 20, 30 years or whatever, of course it changes things compared to when you stop at 24. So this is a very important success factor, and the other thing that we are really looking for is people who like to be wrong.

Faith (14:25):

Interesting. Like, to be proven wrong by data?

Dennis (14:28):

Yeah, or just but by anything really. Also, you know, getting feedback that people tell you, “Actually, you know, what you’ve done here isn’t quite right.” (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) But the point with that is that, of course, that breeds progress. So the more you learn about things you don’t know about…the more you develop. And in everything that we do, we have to have an attitude that’s based in humility, where we approach each project based on the assumption that we don’t know anything. That’s a very healthy way of approaching things, but I think it’s also the right way to think about what we do. I always hear these people say, “We want to validate things. We want to validate a design, a business strategy, or whatever.” That cannot exist. You can never validate anything. You can only prove it wrong. And so you have to (Faith: That’s interesting.) be willing to be proven wrong and to actually, to seek out this evidence that you’re wrong all the time. So that means challenging your beliefs, trying to falsify them. Most of them will be falsified, eventually; you will prove that they’re wrong, but that will only bring you closer to something that is less wrong. You’ll never have the truth or validation, but you’ll have better models of reality.

Faith (15:39):

That’s so interesting. I wanna dig a little bit deeper into something that you said, which is, you like to find folks who like to learn. And I think if you ask anybody on the street, “Hey, do you like to learn?” Nobody’s gonna say, “No, thank you,” <laugh>. “I think I’m good.” Right? Like everybody, it’s a classic trope in job interviews and applications. “I’m a fast learner. I love to learn,” when the reality is, most of us, especially at a certain point in our career, feel very uncomfortable being a beginner or being a student, because we feel like it’s expected of us at that point to be a teacher. How do you screen for that? How can you determine if somebody is actually gonna be a good learner and seek out those experiences?

Dennis (16:26):

Well, I don’t really have a, you know, proven method for that, (Faith: <Laugh>.) but I think the important thing is that place where learning stops being fun. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) Because if you are learning just for the fun, obviously, at some point, it’s not going to be fun anymore, so you’ll probably stop if that’s the only motivation or the only thing that keeps you going. If you have that discipline and appreciation that there are tough times, if you go through those, you eventually get to a point where there’s some kind of reward. You’ll be able to truly pursue learning throughout, but it’s a continuous practice. It’s like meditation or, you know, fitness and so on. It always keeps hurting, and you have to accept that hurt, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and you have to keep doing it. I don’t think you can truly screen for that. You need time with people to tell whether they’re really able to do that, and sometimes people, of course, need support for that. And so once you get to know them, perhaps you can understand the ways in which you can support them on the learning path, because it might be that someone is actually a great learner, but not with me as a mentor or someone else. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) So I think that compatibility is also important.

Faith (17:39):

I hadn’t thought about that. And I think that’s totally true, right? Like, team compatibility and how folks operate. We have something here at Gun called a “work style assessment”, and essentially, everybody on an engineering team, or really any team, I do it on my marketing team as well, can take it, and it spits back out like, here’s the kind of environment that you excel at. And I think something like that where you can understand not just the environment, but what kind of mentors or mentees would be ideal for you. That kind of like team planning, I think, is what’s required of really high performing teams, which it sounds like you all are. We talked a little bit about your background at the top of the episode, but I’d like to just kind of hear your recap. How did you end up in this position, leading the team, at this truly incredible design agency?

Dennis (18:38):

Well, it all started by trying to build some products and working with other designers. Of course, this was a very long time ago when the discipline was very different, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) and I didn’t like the outcome. Little did I know back then, that I was at fault for the outcome, not the designers. But of course, this misinterpretation helped me try to understand why and what needs to be done, how things could be done differently. So that has quite quickly brought me to this idea of evidence-based design, which was really in its infancy back then. And one of our chief designers, who’s been with us from the very beginning, also takes the same view of the importance of evidence-based design and the design process that’s not based on assumptions and on whim, but on something that’s more solid. (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) And then we quickly realized this is missing in the industry, or not sufficiently well-developed.

Dennis (19:31):

And back then there were hardly any agencies, and we came up with this crazy idea of, you know, trying to embark on this journey which was difficult for a very long time, because people didn’t understand the role of design back then, then eventually, the importance of design has been revealed, and now everybody’s in love with it. But I think a lot of people still don’t understand the necessary effort to create design that really fulfills its purpose. And everybody just wants quick shortcuts, you know, how can we do it (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) quick and dirty. And the thing is, I’ve tried many times to do it quick and dirty, (Faith: <Laugh>.) which doesn’t work. It always comes to bite you back. So that’s why we’ve really put in a lot of effort in developing this method, especially in these very important types of projects that we’ve talked about, because I just find them to be more rewarding. You know, when I’m working on a project like that, even when I’m tired, or I feel it’s too much, I find ways to come back to it and to keep going. And I think that’s important, because just having the experience doesn’t make it easier. Every project is difficult.

Faith (20:40):

Hmm <affirmative>. Yeah, and you know, we’ve been talking a lot about stakes here, and I think the process of learning for a lot of folks, whether they’re in design or you know, whatever their vertical is, is very much trial and error. And it’s interesting to hear that your, kind of, the impetus of starting this agency came from maybe like, a missed mark previously in your career. You know, when you’re working with such high stakes, trial and error isn’t an option later in the process. And so I guess that just speaks to your unique design process and how, like, in order to make room for those learnings, there’s, I would assume, kind of a long period of review, and testing, and reviewing of evidence and data. Just a different way to think about things, right? Like you said, a lot of folks kind of prioritize quick and dirty, and move fast, and break things, and learn as you go, once it’s out in the world. And that’s just really not an option for what y’all do.

Dennis (21:44):

Yeah, you know, that’s human nature. That’s where, you know, that’s one of the ways in which my background in cognitive science helps. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) Of course, there are many specific principles that are rooted in ergonomics and so on, which is part of cognitive science, but just this appreciation of how fragile human beings are, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) in terms of what they can do, but also how much people love shortcuts (Faith: Right.) and the easy way out, us users, but also us people in projects trying to build something. It’s always fascinating to me to see, particularly with large organizations, how quickly groupthink develops, where what happens is people create products, they go through all sorts of rituals, accuser testing and so on, but then they eventually just have meetings that just reinforce what they all believe, and they all make just decisions that are comfortable for them, and they just, you know, they kick the buck, the developers solve it, and the testers solve it, and the marketers solve it, somebody will solve it later. And then, of course, there comes a point in time where it turns out it’s not really what it should be. And then, for example, we’re called in for an audit, and then we have to redo the whole trail and find where did things go wrong? And it’s, well, at the very beginning.

Faith (22:59):

Interesting. I’m known in, kind of like, our community, as being obsessed with postmortems. I love it when companies really, you know, if they try something and it was an epic failure, they shut down a product line, or even small things like, you know, there was a bug that made our service unavailable for an hour. I love reading postmortems, because I feel like, I mean, learning from other people’s mistakes, right? It’s way lower stakes than having to learn from your own.

Dennis (23:30):

Yeah. And I think it’s interesting. It’s just fascinating.

Faith (23:32):

It is, and interesting that you get some work from that, right? Doing audits of things that broke through previous design. Dennis, I would be willing to bet at least $10 that somebody listening to this is like, “I need to talk to Dennis and the folks at Creative Navy.” How can folks reach you?

Dennis (23:53):

Well, they can just visit our website, (Faith: Easy.) They can find a lot of case studies in there, which might be the thing. I mean, we tried to make them interesting and to sort of reveal a little bit of the magic or what went on and to show some of the deliverables throughout the process, not just the end result, (Faith: Mmm <affirmative>.) because we really love to inspire people with this way of working, or you know, people can take it and change it. That’s completely fine, because I think that in this profession, there’s so many things that still need to be developed. I hope I will, (Faith: Right.) you know, listen back to this podcast in 20 years and think, “What were we even doing back then?” (Faith: <Laugh>.) “That doesn’t make any sense.” I think there’s a fair chance that might happen, because it’s just so new, and the method needs to be improved, for sure.

Faith (24:38):

And just a quick plug, there’s a lot of blogs out there that are content for the sake of content, and I will say, I’ve spent my whole morning in a rabbit hole on the Creative Navy medium. This content is really exceptional, and so I know lots of folks listening are also always looking for stuff to kind of wake their brain up and get the wheels turning. So cannot recommend a deep dive into your medium enough. It’s really good stuff. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN)

Dennis (25:08):

That’s very kind of you to say. We do try to put some effort into it.

Faith (25:12):

It’s great. I write our newsletter, and I’m writing it now, and we’ll be putting one of your articles in there, so…it’s really good.

Dennis (25:19):

Oh wow. Thank you.

Faith (25:20):

Yeah, yeah. Well, Dennis, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing more about your path into UX design, more about what Creative Navy does, and how folks can learn from what y’all do over there. So I really appreciate it.

Dennis (25:37):

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure being here with you.

Faith (25:40):

Thanks for listening to the Frontier podcast, powered by We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week. (THE FRONTIER THEME ENDS)