On large projects, we’ve often contracted with companies that set up focus groups and did various kinds of surveys. It wasn’t cheap, though.
They were always enlightening and entertaining. Quite often clients would argue with us over the directions we wanted to go with various projects. I was always fun to have the company CEOs and VPs sit with us behind the two-way mirrors and listen while the anonymous participants made totally unguarded comments about the company and its products that made the CEOs cringe — especially when those comments backed up what we were already telling them.
Short of this kind of research, though, as contracted designers, we typically have distance from the company that those in the company don’t have. In other words, we should all be able to place ourselves in the position of the target audience and look at what we’re doing from their perspectives instead of from the eyes of those inside the company. It’s not a perfect substitute for getting relevant information directly from those people, but sometimes that and a bit of good, solid research is the best that the budget permits.
It also depends on the skill of the person conducting the sessions to get relevant and unbiased information from the participants without them even knowing what is being evaluated. I’ve really been impressed with the talent of those we used.