How do you know what your customers really need?

entrepreneur I talked with the other day had an interesting challenge.
He sells specialized software to companies operating in certain
industries. Of course he talks with his clients on a regular basis and
he receives feedback to his products through surveys and helpdesk

However, he told me had the strong impression that his
customers are not telling him what they really need, i.e. the kind kind
of strategic information about user requirements which would enable him
to outsmart his competition with future releases of the software.

a known dilemma, for example in usability design. If you ask people how
they, let's say, browse a website, you will get different
answers from when you actually sit down to watch over their shoulders.
The needs people formulate as input for product development differ from
the needs that you can identify through observation.

Unfortunately, watching over his customers' shoulders while at work wasn't really an option to my entrepreneur friend.

we started playing with the idea of extracting those real user
requirements in a different setting. What if we would invite a team
from one of the customer companies to a workshop, where we would engage
them in a creative exercise which would surface those user requirements
– more or less as a side-effect?

For example, it could be a team building exercise, similar to Cluetail's 'Deadline Stress In The Video Newsroom'.

[From our brochure at :
'Deadline Stress In The Video Newsroom'. Tailored to non-media, e.g.
business teams. Playful team building exercise with a serious purpose.
The team is assigned to prepare and produce a live video newscast.
While learning some real techniques in a real production setting,
every-day work roles are turned upside-down, collaboration skills are
put to the test, and egos may get hurt… To borrow from Nietzsche: if
this exercise doesn't kill your team, it will make it stronger :-) 
(And after the newscast, when the stress falls of your shoulders, it's
time to celebrate!) ]

the case of my entrepreneur friend, the customer team could be assigned
to create a video reportage about the software product. It could be a
story about the current product, highlighting all its pros and cons. Or it
could be a story about the ideal future product, and the team could
think it up from scratch.

When we get into role play, we tend to
exaggerate things a little, and we like to put our fingers on the sore
spots – often with a dose of humor. I believe that this type of
creative exercise might just give us some really valuable pointers to
the direction in which this particular software should be developed.

do you think? Does this make any sense? Have you come across similar
approaches? What kind of creative exercise would you try on your
customers, to get a better insight into their real needs?