Introduction: Empathetic Design: DIY Hands Free Soap Dispenser

With the COVID-19 outbreak at an all time high in the United States, proper health and hygiene is of utmost concern. The coronavirus is believed to be able to be spread by physical contact, however it is also important to prevent the spread of other illnesses during these times as it can increase a person’s health risk. The implementation of hands-free devices not only further protects you from dangerous germs and pathogens, but also limits you from spreading it to others. Most household soap bottles have one flaw: they require you to make contact with the bottle. This leads to a buildup of bacteria where people touch the bottle, and it can be particularly resistant to disinfectants because of its location. Hands-free soap dispensers do exist, however they are usually expensive or designed for commercial use. For this do-it-yourself project, we will go over how to make a hands-free soap dispenser using items found at home. I have taken a more involved interest in this as, recently, my grandfather came down with an illness. As he is not contagious, the rest of the family poses a greater threat to him if we are not careful with our cleanliness. Therefore, it is important we stop the spread of other illnesses, especially since the soap dispenser is what we use to actively combat this. The materials will also be ones found around most homes, therefore it can help you rid of some clutter that may have accumulated since the quarantine. Limiting the spread of bacteria around your house will hopefully relieve some of the tension around the house surrounding COVID-19.


The following supplies will be required:

  • 24 square inch sheet of cardboard
  • Four 36 inch strings
  • pump soap/hand sanitizer dispenser
  • roll of duct tape
  • Glue (hot, Elmer’s, or super glue)

The following equipment will be required:

  • 1 box cutter
  • 1 pair of scissors
  • 1 pencil

Step 1: Empathetic Research

To understand my motivations for creating this project, one must first understand the definition of empathy, and be able to differentiate it from sympathy. Sympathy is identifying and acknowledging someone’s feelings and emotions. You can console and assist another person, but this level of understanding does not surpass a superficial level. On the other hand, empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another person, and having the ability to understand and relate to their feelings firsthand. You do not have to feel the exact same emotions that another is feeling, but simply being able to relate and perhaps having felt these emotions at one time in the past. Being able to understand the reasons for another person’s feelings allows you to register a much stronger emotional connection and makes it easier to find solutions to their problems.

In this case, my clients are my grandparents. They mostly stay on the second floor of our house, which means we see them less than other household members. Especially with the COVID-19 quarantine, we are mostly confined to our living spaces and my grandparents come downstairs less and less to avoid contamination. As a result, this can lead them to start to feel neglected at times. This project is for one intended to show them that we are always thinking about them and their needs. My grandfather also recently became ill and is currently recovering. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must actively protect against all types of bacteria and diseases.

Step 2: Prepare Your Work Surface

Take your cardboard sheet and find a good flat work surface to work on. This surface needs to be relatively large and you may cut through the cardboard onto your surface so it should be relatively scratch resistant or one that you do not mind cutting up.

Some suggestions include: outdoors, on the floor, on a cutting board, etc.

Step 3: Trace Cardboard Cutouts

To make cutting the cardboard easier, you will want to trace the specified dimensions first. Trace three 4” by 4” squares and one 5” by 4” rectangle with a ruler and a marker.

Equipment Required: Marker, ruler

Step 4: Cut Out Your Cardboard Parts

With your cardboard sheet and your box cutter, begin to cut out the differently sized rectangles. There will likely be some left over cardboard, however this will not be required for the rest of the project. The size of the box is an approximation and not a true requirement. Instead, it gives you a wider margin of error in case you make any mistakes in cutting.

Equipment required: Box cutter

Step 5: Punch Holes Through Your Cardboard

Take your three 4” by 4” cardboard squares and a pencil. Optimally the pencil should be sharp but for this situation it would still work no matter what. Begin to use the pencil to stab holes in each of the four corners of each square. through the cardboard and run the pencil through the hole, enlarging it. This should be at least a quarter inch from the edges of each side.

Equipment required: pencil

Step 6: Glue Together Cardboard Parts

Take two of your three 4" by 4" cardboard squares. Line up the holes and glue one atop the other. Then, take your 5" by 4" rectangle and glue the edge of your 4" by 4 " square and glue it to the top edge of the rectangle. The pieces should form an L shape. Personally, I used super glue, but Elmer's and hot glue should work just as fine. Additionally, you can reinforce the corners and help keep it in place by using tape in addition to the glue.

Step 7: Attach Hand Sanitizer to Wall

Use your tape to attach the hand sanitizer bottle to the wall with the nozzle of the pump facing out. Ensure there is some free space behind the bottle of hand sanitizer so you can insert the cardboard attachment. The hand sanitizer bottle was attached about four feet above the ground. Some adjustments can be made, but will require altering the size of the string.

Step 8: Cut Your String

Take your string and begin to measure off 36” and cut it. You will require four strands of 36” string. Ensure the string is strong as it will undergo some strain when being used.

Equipment required: Scissors

Step 9: Position Cardboard Over Soap Dispenser

Put the L shaped cardboard piece over the nozzle of the soap dispenser. The 4” by 4” piece should be on the top of the nozzle while the rectangular face should be positioned behind the soap dispenser.

Step 10: Tie String to Cardboard

Tie one end of each of your four strings to the cardboard on top of the soap dispenser. Then, tie the other ends off to the adjacent holes on your unused 4” by 4” cardboard piece. It should dangle under the soap dispenser bottle.

Step 11: Decorating (Optional)

Since the function of this project is of utmost importance, the design is not very important and is not meant to last too much longer than the duration of the pandemic. However, if you want to make it more visually appealing, here are some ideas. You can use decorative/patterned tape instead of regular duct tape. Additionally, you can use leftover wrapping paper or print out designs and glue them to the outside of the cardboard. You can use markers and highlighters to add designs and patterns. The better it looks, the less jarring it may look in your restroom/kitchen.

Making use of what was available to me at home, I took a very old tapestry and began cutting it up to encase the soap dispenser. You do not need to cut it out precisely, as you can compare it to the soap dispenser and trim off some of the edges accordingly.

Step 12: Using the Dispenser

The dangling piece of cardboard will now act as a foot pedal, allowing you to press down on the pedal. This will in turn make the top part compress, thus pumping the nozzle of the soap dispenser. This way, your hands make no contact with the soap dispenser, thus limiting the spread of germs.

Step 13: Protecting Your Family

After completing this project, it's important to reflect on why you started this in the project. Not to occupy yourself because you were bored during the lockdown or for your own benefit, but to show your family that you are considerate of their wellbeing and willing to work to impact their lives in meaningful ways. It's easy to feel neglected, especially in these times where it seems like everybody is more concerned about themselves. These small kindnesses show that you still care about whoever you are hoping to benefit through this project. Showing empathy in times of struggle always serves to give people hope and inspiration. Your family's health is always important, and by protecting it, not only are you showing empathy and caring, but also preventing the further spread of illnesses during a time where the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed so many lives. Hopefully, by limiting the spread of germs within your own household, your family will be able to rest easier and spend more time with the people in their lives who matter.