Let's cut right to the chase - companies want to know what you want to buy. They really, really want to know. They email you surveys, they print feedback sweepstakes on your receipts, and they pay market researchers a LOTTA money to tell them what you want. And you tell them! You're genuinely thrilled to let them know what you're thinking! You want them to know what you want to buy too!
So what's the problem with all of that? Why does it seem so hard to find exactly what you want on the shelf? Because, honestly, you can't tell them what you want. And they're pretty silly to keep asking! For the average user the majority of any experience doesn't register in the conscious mind. The subconscious processes much of what we see, hear, touch and smell - and only the highlights are big enough to catch our full attention.
What companies could really use is insight into unarticulated needs. These are the things you won't tell them, but you'll recognize instantly when your attention is drawn to it. Take the photo above for example. When surveyed, the owner of this refrigerator was asked "can you store wine in your refrigerator" and responded "yes" with no qualifications. Upon direct observation of the user's fridge, it was obvious that wine bottle storage was not being adequately addressed.
The user isn't going to tell you what they need, but it's right there waiting to be observed through ethnographic documentation. Traditionally, ethnography demands a rigorous period of immersion into a culture for observation. The same principles can be applied to observation research on a smaller scale. Forget the focus groups. Forget the surveys. Take the plunge and get right inside the user's world - the answers are there waiting for you.