10 things you can do with customers other than ask them what they want.
1. Shadow them doing their work. As you watch them capture several things: what are the tasks that they do (and what are the steps in that task), what are the tools that they use, who are the people they interact with? Draw a map. Create a diagram somehow capture what it is that your customers do.
2. Give them something to react to. This can be a drawing of the tool (a paper prototype), a competitors tool, and unrelated tool, a photograph, a short video. Ask them about their thoughts associated with the things that you are having them react to ask them what it has to do with their work.
3. Do a visioning exercise for their business or their lives. Help them to identify what it is that they would like their alternate future there possible future. What will they see in their lives when they are there? What will people say? What will they be doing with their time? What will they believe? Essentially you want to create a vision that maps to the future empathy map.
4. Replace your customer for the day. If they have a job, do their job for the day. Okay, you might in fact need to have them looking over your shoulder the whole time in order to get anything done. But you be the person to do.
5. Create a collage with your customer or have them make a collage for you that captures today on one half and tomorrow on the other half. This essentially gets at visioning, however, by making it visual, using imagery from magazines and newspapers, along with occasional words - you might be able to get some new ideas about how they see themselves and how they see their future and where you might fit in.
6. Have them try out a current solution that they do not use but that you offer. Set it up like a usability test. Have them do some tasks. Note what barriers they encounter what questions they bring up and what surprises them.
7. Gather a group of customers together and have them create a physical map of their processes. Some of the processes will be the same. And there might be concurrent separate strings. Pay close attention to how they work with one another, what surprises them about differences.
8. Do a card sort with your customers. You can do this on an ideal hierarchy of information, or to capture the relationship between concepts that you are aware of that may in fact be important to the customer. The point of the card sort is not necessarily the categories customers create. The point of the card sort is their explanation for the categories that they created.
9. Have your customer teach you how to do something that they truly dislike in their work (or their home life). You can focus this in on whatever your specialization is, but categorical level rather than a specific level. For example, managing your finances rather than paying bills.
10. Buy your customer lunch or dinner (or breakfast) and talk to them about the history of how they got to where they are today. We all have luck and planning and unique things that make up our personal stories. Get theirs.