"But how could that possibly be? And even if our product has a few flaws, if our customers don't seem to mind, what's the big deal?"
-Former Product Manager of $250mm product line; currently busboy at favorite childhood diner
Surfing for your blind-spots with your product (My product's got flaws? What flaws?)
Bottom line is that you & your customers have come to accept many of your product's and your product category's limitations - the parts of it that, well, are a drag... but a tolerable drag. The scary thing is that you and most of your customers are not even aware of these "drags" because they've simply always been that way.
<beginning of annoying analogy> It's kind of like if you were a fish... and since you grew up in the water, and all you've ever experienced was living in the water, would water really exist for you? Would it not ostensibly be "invisible" to you, Mr. Fish, since it has always been there? <end of annoying analogy>
So given that many of your product's flaws are invisible to you & your customers, it's usually not until someone else - nearly always someone from outside your industry - introduces a new product or innovation that leaves your product in the dust, that you come to realize how blind you have been. Think Apple and digital music, Netflix/streaming video and movie rentals / cable TV, cell phones and land-line phones, IKEA and traditional furniture stores... you get the picture.
At some point in our careers, we are all guilty of falling asleep at the wheel... and even perhaps with a little drool on our chins... these "leapfrog" innovations redefine the dimensions by which you & your customers come to evaluate the products in your category. And sometimes the very definition of the product category itself may shift.
The challenge is that you can talk to your customers until you're blue in the face about your products and about their needs and desires, and chances are that none of your customers will point the way towards product-leapfrog stardom. Why? Because your customers are as blind as you are. Like you, they can't see what has always been. If all I've ever experienced is cars having steering wheels, how could I ever consider the possibility of cars not having steering wheels? I.e., that there could be other means by which one could maneuver a car.
How to Identify Your Product Blind Spots
The first thing you need to accept is that you will not be able to identify your product blind spots. That's why they're your blind spots! So, what you need is a little help... to borrow the eyeballs of an outsider - someone who is completely alien to your product or category. Globalization has no doubt made finding such eyes more difficult, but you don't necessarily have to travel to the other end of the globe to procure such vision.
All you have to do is locate folks who have never experienced your product or product category, and are thus not "handicapped" like you and your customers are. And how do you locate such people? Often times it's as simple as looking at the typical profiles of your customers and identifying people who have wildly different profiles from them.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but you will gain access to a new way of viewing your product that was previously unavailable to you. The great thing is that in many cases you can leverage the wonders of the Internet to connect with such "misfits" and access a new way of seeing from the comforts of your tidy little pod at work. And, once you've aggregated the insights and alternative perspectives you've gathered, you can then share these ideas with your customers... and stand back while some truly innovative concepts begin to formulate. It's pretty amazing what can evolve.
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts or questions.