EquiHome, an application that evenly distributes tasks, was developed by University graduate students and won the 2021 Innovation in Action Challenge. Isaac Mangold/Daily.  Buy this photo.

When School of Information graduate student Deepti Pandey first joined the 2021 Innovation in Action challenge, she knew she wanted to address gender inequality. Along with Rackham graduate students Mary Figueroa and Mintu Joy, Pandey helped design EquiHome, an application to combat the inequitable distribution of housework women face in domestic life by promoting collaborative team spirit at home and relieving some of the duties of primary caretakers.

Compatible as a mobile application and with voice assistant devices, EquiHome allows users to create task lists and divide chores equitably among household members. The application consists of a customizable homepage, where users can identify team members and chores, integrate work calendars and set rewards for each task. Voice assistant devices can be linked to the application to track tasks, read day-to-day task updates and recite instructions to help users while completing household chores.

Ann Verhey-Henke, strategic director of the Center for Socially Engaged Design, founded Innovation in Action, a University-wide competition created to give student teams the opportunity to address real-world problems. This year, the competition encouraged teams to focus on one of the ideas from the UN sustainability goals, which included gender equality. Verhey-Henke commended the women behind EquiHome for their passion and commitment to their project.

“Every step of the way they asked thoughtful questions, sought out a wide range of stakeholders to speak with, and were eager to hear and incorporate feedback,” Verhey-Henke said. “We’re grateful they chose to spend their time with us in Innovation in Action this year, and we are excited to be on this journey with them as they take on the world with their innovative ideas and tireless passion.” 

Moving forward, the EquiHome team is actively seeking potential investors to secure further funding. In the coming months, the team plans to process their application through an incubator program or startup school in order to have a prototype available in app stores by June 21, 2021. They estimate the voice assistant device component should be available sometime in July. They plan to offer a free model of EquiHome, as well as a premium package which would cost $4.99 a month. Pandey stressed that the first version of the application will act as a learning experience for the team as they receive customer feedback. 

“We learn more and more about what people like and what people hate and then build upon that,” Pandey said. “We just want to make sure that this incredible moment is not lost from us.”

In the process of designing EquiHome, the team conducted more than 60 interviews to better understand the needs of the public and inform the mission of the proposed application. Pandey said the interview process is ongoing and they are currently looking to meet with relationship counselors to address how the application can best function in domestic life. While the group originally sought to help women gain equal pay and opportunities in the workforce, Pandey said a set of over 40 preliminary interviews helped them understand how unequal distribution of housework affected women’s lives in the workforce.

“There was a more systematic underlying issue,” Pandey said. “Women were facing more challenges to go out and work, be present at work both mentally and physically and to be able to contribute time. And the reason (for that) was that they are overwhelmed at home.”

Figueroa also said her public health background led her to take further interest in how women’s mental health is affected by unequal distribution of work. Upon receiving feedback from the 40 preliminary interviews, she explained how EquiHome can act not only as a tool for physical chore distribution, but also as a platform where conversations about domestic gender roles can take place.

“That’s really important to me growing up in a multi-ethnic family where those traditions are very much embedded,” Figueroa said. “How do we start these conversations and how do we continue to alleviate the burden from women being main breadwinners and working at home as well?”

Ryan Henyard, faculty experience designer at the Center for Academic Innovation, mentored the EquiHome team and commended their attention to mental health among primary caretakers. He said the reward feature in the application acted not only as a scoreboard, but as a redeemable self care feature for primary caregivers who often view their own mental health as a last priority.

“Having a system that encourages these people to think about how they can be better in taking care of themselves in relation to how much effort they are putting into the household is one that I thought was a really elegant idea,” Henyard said. “It helps to reinforce (self care) without scolding and through positive reinforcement, which is what so much of this project is built upon.”

While the EquiHome team largely focused on gender inequities in heterosexual relationships, Pandey said the team is interviewing same-sex couples about their division of household labor as well. The team said this is part of their effort for the application to be used in many different home environments.

Joy said she felt personally connected with the team’s goals for EquiHome. Being a mother of two small children and a graduate student at the same time, Joy said she has still taken on the majority of the housework. Joy emphasized that although the woman taking care of the house and children is normalized in history, she hopes to equalize the burden.

“It’s always on women’s shoulders because they have been doing this for ages,” Joy said. “Even my mother and grandmother.”

Henyard said he felt grateful for the EquiHome team’s hard work and praised them for taking the time to conduct interviews, rethink their goals and integrate feedback. He said he is excited for EquiHome’s future.

“I think that when the core of your idea is based on a powerful personal story and is based on trying to improve equity, magic can happen,” Henyard said. “And that’s what I feel like I’m watching in action.”

Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at vkiefer@umich.edu.