Most of a Product Manager's business life is spent in avoiding problems. However, in market research he has to eagerly seek out problems. Problems are very strong motivators of consumer purchases, and customer buy-in's. People will buy something they believe will solve a problem that afflicts them.
Problem detection studies are often quantitative surveys designed to define problems in a category and then rank them based on intensity (How bothersome is the problem), frequency (How of the does the problem occur), duration (How long does the problem last), and preemptibility (What is the extent to which currently available products can solve this problem).
To discover needs and ferret out problems, a nice PM conducts surveys and asks questions. He may also arrange to actually watch a process, whether that process is machining a precision part, mowing the lawn, opening a bank account, or designing a mobile application. By studying the process, he identifies gaps, needs and more importantly, problems!
There is a catch here, instead of looking for ways to arrange work processes so that they are more efficient, our nice PM is looking for ideas about new products that will appeal to consumers by making tasks or processes easier, more efficient, more pleasant, more profitable and so on.
Talking of task and process observations, they should be combined with questions:
1. Ask the potential customer to list all the tasks or steps involved in this project.
2. Ask him to rate the steps from pleasant to unpleasant.
3. Ask why he finds a given step pleasant or unpleasant.
4. Ask if, why and how he would would like the step, task, or process changed.