Editor’s note: Richard F. Cecil founded the Triangle Usability Professionals Association, an organization focused on evangelism, professional development, and networking for practitioners and students of user experience. He is currently the Web Solutions Manager for Cingular Wireless. This column is the latest in the Entrepreneurial Spirit series done in partnership between the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – When is the last time you talked to a customer? If it’s been more than a few days, finish reading this article, then go talk to one. Clear your schedule and go talk to them. Don’t have people who use your product, yet? Then go talk to people who use similar products.

Henry Ford may have disagreed with me. He once said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” That might very well be true, but if you stop there, you’ve missed the point.

It’s not enough to ask people what they want or how they’d like something to work—that’s like asking a psychologist to counsel himself. It can’t be done. Your customers (or potential customers as the case may be) don’t have the appropriate expertise necessary to envision a solution, much less an innovative solution. What they do have, though, is intimate knowledge about the problem your product will solve and that’s what you’re after. That said, their answer to those direct question can give you insight into the actual problem—and maybe even a few ideas.

Your goal, then, when talking with customers, is to understand how they think about the problem. Do they even view it as a problem? What language do they use to communicate the problem? As a general guideline, you can ask a “why” question three times to any given problem. Three “whys” will generally reveal enough information about the situation to allow an accurate diagnosis. Sometimes you may need to dig more, other times less, but your goal is to get to the heart of the issue that they’re facing.

You’ll also want to give the problems as much context as possible. Note their surroundings, their workday, and their routine. Take pictures if you have a camera.

By understanding your customers’ wants, needs, and motivations you can design your product such that it adds value to their lives where they would welcome it most.

Of course, hiring or partnering with someone who specializes in customer research would provide you with the broadest and deepest understanding of your customers. When looking for a partner, contractor, or employee, look for someone who has experience with “contextual inquiry” or “ethnography” or “field research.”

As a side note, avoid focus groups for this type of research—they’re better suited for showing your customers a prototype or an actual product.

Lack of upfront customer research can be a stumbling block for business. The stumble might not come until several years into the life of the business. Often, when you set out to solve a problem with a new product design, you conceive a solution that is much different than how your customers actually would use the product. And by the time most companies realize this, they’ve coded themselves into a corner, so designing a product that meets your customers’ needs becomes much more difficult and time consuming.

I can’t promise that you’re product will be a huge success should you choose to take my advice. After all, a great product is only one part of a business. But without it, you leave yourself vulnerable to another business who believes she can do what you do—only better—and who actually takes the time to understand her customers and delivers products that meet their needs.