Empathy maps as explained by the Sixth Sense


We use empathy maps to gain deeper insights into a customer or a group of customers. A map can be used to create a persona, understand a challenge, or simply offer a new perspective by delving into and then synthesizing the sensory interactions between a customer and a product. In other words, you might try this at home by choosing a subject (to play the role of your customer) and answering the following questions:

What would the user be thinking & feeling? What are some of their worries and aspirations?
What would their friends, colleagues, and boss be likely to say while the user is using our product? What would the user hear in these scenarios?
What would the user see while using our product in their environment?
What might the user be saying and/or doing while using our product? How would that change in a public or private setting?
What are some of the user’s pain points or fears when using our product?
What gains might the user experience when using our product?

Making sense? Kind of? How about we start with a familiar subject and build one together.

The Sixth Sense is an M. Night Shyamalan thriller that explores human interactions with fear. It features a decorated cast that includes Bruce Willis with hair, post-Forrest Gump/pre-this picture Haley Joel Osment, Mischa Barton puking, and Olivia Williams looking cold, but is remembered for arguably the most iconic sensory line in cinematic history. Cue HJ.

If we use this as the free space on our empathy map bingo board, what new insights might we be able to gain if we flesh out the other sections?

Let’s break down our maps according to the film’s three core personas: the dead; those who can communicate with the dead; and those who’ve lost somebody they care about. If you want to avoid those aforementioned spoilers, this would be the spot to turn around.


Our primary ghost in this film is esteemed child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe. His pains and gains are fairly normal since— as Haley Joel explains — ghosts don’t know they’re dead. His character is well-educated and insightful, but often jumps to conclusions prematurely. There are a few concrete goals for Dr. Crowe’s character: he wants to help a patient who’s eerily similar to the one he failed, and he wants to save his failing marriage. Crowe also seems to attribute Anna’s (his wife) perception of him with his professional reputation so he believes that accomplishing the first goal will effectively accomplish the second goal as well.

Crowe only re-orients his intention from saving his marriage to giving his marriage closure when he realizes he’s been dead since the opening scene. He closes the movie telling Anna his goodbyes in the hope that she’ll find peace and happiness in the future.


The only two characters who fit this persona are Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg…what!?!) and we get WAY more material from Cole so we’ll focus on him. His goals, in short, are to cure himself of his psychosis and live a normal childhood. He believes his condition is the root cause for all of his transgressions, and these transgressions (see “wrote upset words”, “drew a violent picture”) the cause of his present social exile. His mother tries to teach him optimism but his reluctant self-identification as a “freak,” and his assurance Dr. Crowe won’t be able to help him show that this optimism is on the verge of running out. The audience and Dr. Crowe are led to believe the absence of a coping mechanism will lead Cole to follow a similar path as the nearly naked and deranged Vincent Grey.


The third persona describes the sensory pains of tangentially affected parties. Cole’s mother, Lynn, is affected by her son’s condition and struggles to balance external positivity with internal stress. With the exception of the scene where she accuses Cole of stealing her pendant (it was actually the ghost of her mother, OMG), she only vocalizes her concern for her son behind closed doors. She’s transparent about her own failed coping mechanisms (“I guess I just ain’t been praying right”) so while she never says so explicitly, she seems to understand that her stress is a result of her confusion. Lynn’s character represents the internal battle between resilience and doubt.

For much of the film Lynn doesn’t appear to have much of a social circle beyond her son (perhaps she’s ostracized as well?) so we have difficulty projecting the insights from her case study upon other tangentially affected parties like Anna Crowe or Mr. Collins. It’s only after Cole reveals his secret that Lynn — and all of her unanswered questions throughout the film — becomes the appropriate face for a persona that represents those who never received proper post-mortem closure.

Toni Collette does her best WTF reaction


There are a few themes that appear in all of these empathy maps. Each persona determines their self-worth through the opinions of others. Crowe values Cole and Anna, Cole — his classmates and mother, and Lynn — the general societal structure. Each carries pain they try not to address. Cole refuses to talk to others about his condition, Dr. Crowe goes a bizarre length of time without having a conversation with his wife because he’s in denial about their marital trouble, and we never learn about Lynn’s severe self-doubt until one of the final scenes of the movie. The Sixth Sense is an endorsement of therapists as Indiana Jones is an endorsement of archeologists, so it makes sense that this pain is ultimately mended through openness and communication.

Empathy maps help uncover the barriers that prevent these characters from reaching their eventual solutions. Cole’s issue wasn’t his psychosis, it was his ability to embrace his psychosis. Lynn’s issue wasn’t her confusion, it was her willingness to accept that her son was different. And Dr. Crowe’s issue wasn’t his ability as a psychologist, it was his inability to realize he’s been dead the entire film. Throughout the film our personas repress diagnoses that make them different, so perhaps breaking from social etiquette is our personas’ greatest fear of all.

Or maybe this is just another ghost movie.