I’ve always loved the story of how Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club.
He went around in bars, talking to groups of people about their fears and regrets. He’d also ask them about what their life was like (their job, their living situation, etc.) Then he would sit at the bar and write, letting the most common or unique answers shape characters and parts of the story. Those answers were things like: being a grown man who’d never been in a fight, wanting to quit a worthless 9-5 job, self-loathing for getting caught up in a materialistic society, lacking a father figure, and being a caterer and pissing into the rich customers’ food.
Notice what Palahniuk didn’t do. He didn’t go around to bookstores and libraries, asking people what they liked or didn’t like about his previous books. He didn’t ask what kind of story people wanted to hear. Instead, he tried to understand what makes people tick. He tried to understand what all of us have in common, and how we can relate: through our fears, regrets, and stories. He also brilliantly did his research in the most candid environment (pubs) rather than in a well-lit, controlled market research firm.
This is why his story resonated with such a large group of people — he had an abundance of empathy.
Don’t ask people what they want, or how they think you could improve your product. People are idiots, and they all have their own selfish agenda. They don’t care about your vision; they care about themselves.
Instead, try to understand the environment they live in. It may seem trite, but you have to put yourself into your customer’s shoes and find out where they’re coming from. What are the things that bother them on a daily basis? What do these people have in common with each other? What stories do they have to tell? What do they hate about the current way things are done? And why have they grown accustomed to it?
The answers to those questions will give you real insight, not focus group insight.