Sophie Kwok

Building confidence and the evolution of Love Intently — an interview with AC4D alumni Sophie Kwok

In this interview, Sophie Kwok (AC4D 2016) and I discuss her evolution as a designer and founder of a service, Love Intently, that empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. Sophie credits the Austin Center for Design community for playing a key role in both her personal and professional growth — specifically by always providing a sounding board for ideas and critique, as well as being a source of unwavering encouragement. She possesses boundless positivity, a desire to nourish community, and a down-to-earthiness, can-do spirit that I admire greatly and know will always contribute to her success.

How did you find out about Austin Center for Design?

Randomly, I had a developer friend come into town, and he was talking to me about UX designers and Interaction designers. He explained to me how needed they were in the industry and the demand for them. The more he talked about what they did, the more I realized, ‘holy crap, that’s exactly what I want to do!’ So I started this rapid Google search and AC4D got on my radar. I was trying to scheme how to check out the school, and then ironically, a Creative Director in my office came by and dropped off AC4D Boot Camp tickets on my desk and was like, ‘Hey, I got some of these, I think you’d enjoy this, you should go!’ So, I went and realized, ‘This is exactly what I want to do!’

Toward the end of undergrad, I heard about IDEO and Frog. I was immediately interested and initially made an internal goal to scheme to get into Frog or IDEO through Interior Design and the spatial interaction piece of things. I knew they were hiring for architects for that, but as soon as I found out about AC4D I knew my ROI was almost 100% from an interior design salary to an interaction design salary, so I made the jump!

Tell me what you majored in during Undergrad and what you were doing before AC4D — and perhaps why it was the right time to make a move.

So I studied Interior Architecture with a minor in Sustainability, so I had exposure to all of these Wicked Problems. Coming from a small town in Houston, I just wasn’t exposed to a lot. I had no idea that two-thirds of the world live off of two dollars or less a day. Or the environmental crisis we were in and the lack of basic necessities so many people suffer from today. So during undergrad, I got exposure to what was going on in the world, and I just knew that was something that I wanted to impact in some capacity, whether it was in my work, or outside of my job. Then after undergrad, I worked at a large firm in Austin, and to be frank, it wasn’t a logical time to make the jump. However, I did anyways because I knew I didn’t want to be an interior designer forever. This was something I knew before I even graduated from undergrad.

Interaction design was something that I already wanted to do without knowing there was a title for it. For me, the fact that I found AC4D and then my Creative Director came by and dropped off tickets to the AC4D boot camp; those were signs that I couldn’t just ignore. After going through the Boot Camp, I knew it was something I had to do, and I would regret not doing. In short, I ran out of excuses not to take the leap. I am still single, young, with no kids, had very low-risk but extremely high ROI.

Tell me about your time at AC4D and your greatest challenge related to the program.

My biggest challenge was learning how to do Ethnography and Synthesis because it was just so different from what I was taught to do and what the Architecture industry allows for. The traditional education system trains you to have the right answers but doesn’t empower you to ask questions. When I think about it, being able to ask the right questions and handle ambiguity is critical in creating impact or entrepreneurship.In Interior Architecture, we never went and talked to people who are actually going to be in the spaces that we design, which is incredibly sad. The larger firms are trying to hire design researchers and become research-based, but the interior designers who are actually designing the spaces rarely have that knowledge.

Ethnography and design research was really difficult for me because it became extremely emotionally taxing. Empathy is something I felt strong in previously. AC4D takes practicing empathy to a whole other level, to the point that I actually take on participants’ emotions in an unhealthy way. I had to learn how to separate that and learn to process those emotions on my own. For me, my research topic in Q2 was extremely close to home — I was pretty much a research participant — because of that, by the end of Q2, I wasn’t even sure what was true of my life or the lives of our participants. I had been living in their world, emotions, and stories — the good and the bad — for so long.

Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.
Sophie in the midst of a synthesis process at AC4D.

As cliche as this may sound, another major challenge I think we all learn to overcome during AC4D is ourselves. You’re forced to ask “why” against every part of yourself and what you believe. None of it is easy, but if you’re willing to do the work, the outcome is invaluable. You learn how you work, your patterns, your triggers, strengths, weaknesses, and how to leverage all of it in the most impactful, productive way.

Can you tell me more about your Q2 research and how it led to your final project?

The initial research topic was mental health, and we were assigned the task to find a population to focus our research on. We chose to focus on second generation Asian Americans with refugee parents. This was a population that people would say, “they don’t need help.” We knew this was a population that didn’t get very much attention and if we didn’t do the research, it was likely no one else out there would. We had this opportunity where we knew we would get phenomenal stories and could generate powerful, meaningful insights. However, we knew there would be difficulty breaking down cultural barriers since these stories aren’t commonly shared.

We approached our research differently by inviting our participants to cook a meal with us that reminded them of home. During that time of making a meal with them, we got to ask them about their lives and relationships. From there, we naturally went into a lot of topics around family dynamics and family conflicts, dug into solutions around conflict resolution but recognized that conflict resolution within families is highly complicated because there are multiple people, personalities, none of which actually choose each other. They are just born into each other’s lives.

We kept running into problems and knew that we needed to pivot. Around Q4, we pivoted to romantic relationships since it was a relationship they chose. We believed it was a relationship we could create a meaningful impact in and it would overflow into their other relationships. We took a step back and started looking at the steps and build up before they ever get into conflict. Rather than a reactive approach, we wanted to create a proactive approach. Our focus shifted to what helps couples build strong and deep relationships daily, rather than concentrate on fixing relationships at their last thread.

Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.
Sophie and Meg working through a service mapping activity at AC4D.

What does your research show about what it takes to ensure a successful partnership? I’m sure a lot of people will be interested to know!

That’s a loaded question, and it wouldn’t be a wicked problem worth making an impact on if there was a simple answer! Most people will say good communication is the key, but I believe it’s mutual respect. Communication will break down at some point no matter who you are but once you lose respect, it rarely comes back. Two people who don’t respect each other have an extremely difficult time loving or communicating to each other well. You can always work on building communication, but it’s near impossible if mutual respect isn’t there.

Additionally, it’s not enough to love; you must choose to show it daily. Our generation is obsessed with making an impact in the world, which is amazing and we should be… however, it shouldn’t be at the cost of our personal lives and relationships. A lot of the time, people will work up to the big moments — like their anniversary and birthdays and think, ‘Oh, I’ll just make it up to them then,’ but it’s the everyday interactions that matter most. When we get busy, it’s so easy to forget to do the little things for each other, as simple as giving your partner a hug; people forget that. Love Intently empowers you to bring your intention back to your relationship. When you have time together, protect that time and give each other undivided attention. It’s also important to learn how your partner best receives love and show them in that way, not necessarily the way you best receive it. Humans are forgetful, so we frequently need to be reminded we’re loved. Lastly, it’s not always about the quantity of time you spend together but the quality of the time. I’ll bet you’d be better off if you spent less time together but intentionally made it special quality time.

Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.
Sophie walking fellow students through initial pilot concepts at AC4D.

Are there any differences in ages — as far as expression that you’ve seen? For example, many of my friends use Snapchat as a way to connect and share moments. Could Snapchat be the savior of relationships?

I think it works for some people in a lot of ways, and social media has helped, but there are a lot of things in social media that have caused strain on relationships too. For example, some girlfriends get mad that their boyfriends don’t post on social media about them. Little things like that, come out of insecurity and doesn’t have any true reflection on how someone feels about a relationship. I think Snapchat works well for someone who receives love through quality time. It’s impossible to be together all of the time, so Snapchat allows them to feel like they spent time with you or know what is going on in your day without having to physically being there. I also know some people well into their 60’s who love the heck out of social media and Snapchat, completely redefining how they connect with their kids. On the contrary, I know some people who can’t stand social media but that doesn’t change how healthy their relationship is.

What did you learn in Q4 about your idea that gave you enough confidence or desire to try to take it beyond AC4D?

In Q4, students are asked to pitch every single week. For us, it was really rough the first couple of weeks, because we legitimately did not have an idea — we were pitching what felt like nothing! We were trying to create a business model around an idea that didn’t even exist yet. But around week 3 the idea around Love Intently started to get some traction. Before we knew it, people started saying, ‘Hey, this really makes sense! Are you going to do this after school?’

I remember we immediately got wide-eyed and freaked out a bit. We were both planning to get interviews post AC4D, and I was starting to line up my network to do so. Prior to that, we hadn’t even considered taking the idea further, but different instructors and mentors at AC4D came in and sat us down. They asked us why we weren’t considering moving forward with the idea, that they thought I should, and that they believed we could. It was truly a community of people that believed in me and the idea, way before I could ever believe in myself. That’s something that I will be forever grateful for and what is so great about AC4D. Yes, we do critique each other and try to make things better, but at the end of the day, it’s about building each other up and creating meaningful things in the world. Everyone advocates for each other at the end of the day. While you’re going through AC4D, it’s the most uncomfortable refinement process that everyone goes through — it’s about pulling out the gunk that’s stopping you. In many cases, it’s ourselves.

Is there an explicit connection between your previous research and your concept? Our did your current concept come out of additional research?

There is definitely a connection. The insights and lessons from our research I will never forget is that everyone wants to have meaningful relationships and conversations, they just don’t know how. Secondly, everyone wants to talk about the harder things in life; they don’t think they have the permission to do so or know how to start. The connection between strong, healthy relationships and mental health is undeniable. Love Intently’s mission is to empower people by giving people tangible ways to excel at loving their partner. We want to help people create more meaningful moments with the people they love most. I believe that the stronger you are in your romantic relationships, the better you will be in the other relationships in life. Our focus is to build on emotional intelligence and self-awareness which helps in every relationship in addition to empowering us to become a better human in general.

How does the product or service concept work?

Love Intently empowers couples to build stronger and deeper relationships by taking the guesswork out of showing you care. We give you daily suggestions based on your partner’s personality type, love language, personal interests, how long you’ve been together, whether they have kids, whether they live together and other factors of your relationship.

We take away the stress of trying to figure out what to do so you can spend more meaningful time together. For instance, Eric would love a massage today, or five minutes of your undivided attention, or would love help cooking dinner tonight or his favorite band is coming into town surprise him with tickets. Something simple like that, that you may not necessarily think of otherwise, but would be super meaningful for your partner if you did.

Where is Love Intently at now, about a year out from AC4D?

I just got into a pre-accelerator program called DivInc, which is a pre-accelerator that empowers diversity in tech, so they take on minority and women founders. It’s an awesome opportunity with an incredible community of brilliant people that want to build each other up. The program starts in April, in Austin, and lasts for three months. I think it will empower me to take things to the next level. An important part of starting a company is learning how you work best. I realize that I needed accountability and people around me. This is one of those ways I’m building that in for myself and hopefully I’ll have a team soon.

Also, I launched officially to the public January 10th, and I had 11 couples come on, and test the first iteration — and paid for it. That was the first time I had ever experienced individuals paying for a service I crafted, and it was exhilarating.

Most recently, I got the opportunity to do a casting call for Shark Tank which was an affirming experience. To think back on where we were this time last year with a half-baked idea to being invited onto a casting call with Shark Tank is surreal to me. I feel confident about my pitch, and we find out in a week or so whether I move forward. Either way, the experience alone was a huge confidence booster.

I remember Jon (the founder of AC4D) saying to us that someday we would present so much it would just become another one of those things we did. I thought he was crazy because I was pretty awful at presenting, but he was right. I’ve pitched Love Intently countless amounts of times in a vast number of environments that none of it really scares me anymore. Melissa Chapman (fellow AC4D alum and mentor) mentioned last week how bizarre it was to think back on my very first presentation to now hearing about me pitching to Shark Tank and owning it. But that’s what AC4D is, a true transformation if you’re willing to put in the work.

What did you learn from the pilot?

There’s a huge learning curve in learning how to launch something successfully; what that looks like and all the phases of launching like pre-pre-launch, pre-launch, launch, and post-launch. They all require different strategies and content. This is also on top of building a website, figuring out recurring payment systems, integrating automation as much as possible and the list goes on. There are about a million things I would do differently now, but it’s OK. The last launch was the first iteration, and I know that there will be future ones. I’m working with people right now to make it an even better experience. Because right now, as an interaction designer, I know the experience can be greatly improved. There are problems that I know are there, so now it’s working to fix them and put the next iteration of Love Intently out into the world again. However, as Steve Jobs says “If you’re not embarrassed with your first launch, then you launched too late”. I also had a hard time asking people to pay which is a common occurrence for creatives because we all have imposter syndrome in one respect or another. However, as humans, we value things as they are priced. So by asking people to pay, Love Intently empowers more couples to build stronger relationships in a sustainable way.

Is there anything else you want to share about your AC4D experience?

I feel the biggest reason I almost didn’t apply was because I thought I was too young and inexperienced. When I entered AC4D, I was only 23 years old and had only worked for a year, which I think is the youngest out of anyone that has gone through the program. I thought I didn’t have enough work experience and I was worried I wouldn’t bring in a valid enough experience. Of course, I was also worried about taking on an additional financial burden — I know there are some programs out there that last 3 months and are the same price. However, understanding human interaction isn’t something you can “crash course” into. Gaining the ability to create wireframes but not to have a process in creating meaningful products is a steep trade-off.

AC4D was by far, the right choice for me because one, I think the “being young” thing is just bogus and is something people need to get over. If anything, I think I was easier to mold because I had less experience and ideas around exactly how design education should be. I was open to everything, in comparison to some approaches or concepts that some folks in my cohort struggled with. Secondly, the money — your ROI is high- you’re going to get a return. Ask any alumni; I think across the board we’ll all agree it was worth every penny. The community is amazing, the alumni network is incredible, you are guaranteed to get a position that pays decent, and it’s a matter of how picky you are after the program of what type of job you want to take. The alumni I know who are unemployed have been picky in finding work they care about, and they should be!

Whatever experience you have — just apply. Make it an option for yourself. If you’re accepted that means the faculty sees something in you that they want to sew into, and that you have something they want to empower and build up. They’ve already taken the commitment to invest in you. After that, you can make a decision to see if it’s right for you. You can always say no but if you don’t apply it’s an automatic no.

Austin Center for Design is a not-for-profit educational institution on the East Side of Austin, Texas that exists to transform society through design.