I worked for several large and small companies over my career and designed large and small websites. One of the best things that happened to me was enrolling in a program for a week at the Tribune network of newspapers where I got to go to the Editor's meeting every day and sit in on the conversations about what went into the next day's newspaper.
Before then, I never really read the print paper. I was working as a designer for the online version of the paper, building interactive projects and tons of other stuff as well. However, it wasn't until that week that I understood our product's strengths.
Every day, for a week, my assignment was to read the entire paper...cover to cover. That was harder than I thought: top stories, entertainment, food, movies, but also about cars, fishing and golf. Lots of stuff that I might read anyways, but also tons that I'd never look at. Every day, I went to the meeting and I heard each of the team leaders discuss what their top stories were and the boss start deciding what was going to be the top stories.
Everyone in that room (except for me) was at one point, a reporter. They knew how it felt on all sides of the aisle. They also were avid readers of the paper. The longer I went through this exercise, the more I felt like I finally understood our customer.
At the end of the week, I had to give a report and although I mentioned some topics related to my specialty...design, I also mentioned that the most important thing I learned was how good our writing was.
I mean, even the fishing and golf stories were well written. I was surprised that everything I thought I had to plow through to get the assignment done, was almost as enjoyable as the stuff I liked to read.
Then, I realized what it was that made our product great...the writing and storytelling. Sure the top news gets a lot of attention, but our core audience was there because they'd be able to find something that appealed to them.
Much has changed in news because of the internet, but I've never forgotten that one of the most important thing you can do when designing a product, is to make an effort to understand your audience. Be a part of it, if you can. Americans call that dogfooding...or eating your own dogfood, but sometimes it gets lost in the business of building something.
Product Managers ask developers to build things without being a part of or understanding their audience...huge mistake. There's no substitute for eating your own dogfood. I've seen products fail over and over because those who create them are not or have never been the users or the consumers of the product. Invariably they don't understand the obvious frustrations that come from using the product. It's a huge waste of time.
From my time at different companies, I can tell you that if we made developers USE the things they built, they would create completely different products. If managers did that, they wouldn't ask you to do things that don't make sense. So much time and effort is wasted going after things that are built without proper understanding.
Trust me, no amount of user research...quantitative or qualitative, surveys, meetings or anything else will tell you what to do. I can tell you from experience that developers, like anyone else will always build the product that makes the most sense to them...not a user...that is unles they're users themselves. Nothing motivates a developer than a product that is not well built. You bet as soon as they get frustrated with the interface, it will be the first thing they fix.
Managers should make sure that they build a culture of using their own products. Starting with themselves. If you don't use it, then you shouldn't really be making decisions about how you think others should. They also need to give time to other managers and expect them to use the products they offer clients.
Maybe there should be a program...like at my newspaper, where at least the developers and the managers have to spend some time really using their products, but I think it's better if they're graded on and are consistent active users of the things they build. I know that takes time, but that's the point. Maybe they can take it from the time they would have wasted once the kill the feature or product that doesn't work.
There is no other way. Eating your own dog food is the only way you'll find out if its any good.