Remember the last time you waited as someone fumbled at the self-checkout counter? Those machines were designed to solve a business problem (reducing staff, opening checkout lines), but they haven't done much to help customers. They need store clerks to help them find the right products, but don't need the burden of the store clerk's job. Soon those million-dollar machines will have to be dismantled and the money will go to waste. 

You wouldn't build a house without drafting a blueprint, yet all too often companies skip this foundational step when launching new products. They build, test, launch, and measure success without fully understanding their customer. Sound familiar?

Building a great digital product requires getting into your customers' heads. You have to go beyond asking, “Can they use it?” to get at the heart of the problems your product will solve. Here are three tricks to get help you get started. 

Determine whether your product--or the surroundings--are the problem. 
A client at my digital consultancy AnswerLab makes software for banks to automate their loan process. The client signed on a major bank around the time it was implementing a new version of its product. Soon customers large and small were complaining. The client needed to understand which issues were environmental--the process they were trying to automate, bandwidth issues, etc.--and which ones stemmed from the new software. 

By casually observing how users interacted with the product, researchers uncovered a few external factors driving their experience. Shockingly, we found the loans were being processed three times--first, as a loan officer encountered issues and then gave up; second, as an officer resorted to the pre-software method, paper; and third, as a closer cleaned up the incorrect data. We soon found the culprit: Loan officers had a compensation system that encouraged them to enter as many loans as possible in the system, regardless of accuracy. We realized a product isn't the only thing that can impact a users' experience. How--and where--that product is being used impact it as well. 

Watch how customers interact with your product. 
"¨To help PayPal test ideas for a mobile wallet, we conducted innovation games with consumers, asking them to share the contents of their wallets and describe their ideal shopping assistant. We then transformed a traditional research lab into a mock retail store, where participants completed a series of shopping scenarios and tested the various concepts PayPal had in mind. In each scenario, some rule or element of the game was altered to tweak the overall experience, such as allowing players to pay ahead using their mobile device or search for store coupons and deals on their phone. 

Putting customers in the context of a mock store environment allowed us to gather several key insights. For starters, consumers admitted they'd feel like real jerks cutting in line for a coffee they'd already purchased. Such insights couldn't have come from traditional focus groups or usability testing alone. 

Take a microscope to your customers. 
A geneology company recently asked why more customers weren't converting to its paid subscription service after a free trial. To research the problem, we conducted a diary study to track customer sentiment over time. 

It turns out the drop-off in customers had more to do with needing a break than being displeased with the service. The only subscription model in place at that time was a monthly service that could be turned On or Off. But if an alternative subscription could make it cost-effective for customers to maintain a relationship while taking a break, then we found there would be less churn.