To create breakthrough products you need to observe and ask questions. Lazy ways of doing this are observing comments and usage on sites like flickr or epinions.com, howthingswork.com or even Consumer Reports. You are stymied here though by the fact that the internet and its usage might not be ubiquitous and you might be observing people who are not your core consumers.
Whose problem are you solving? Just because a solution does not solve a user problem does not mean that it is a bad design. There are many stake holders in the product development process- retailers, shipping, manufacturing, environmental concerns etc in ADDITION to the end-product and how it is used. Many of these concerns are not as evident but can help the success of a product from behind the scenes. Japanese Kaizen development process of incremental development is a great example of fine-tuning as any aspects of the automobile as feasible. Shaving pennies and time, though not spectacular can be instrumental in developing a product with longevity.
Kaizen only works once you have a breakthrough idea or product. You need to have a great product that solves the problem of a sufficient number of people in an economic way for the retailer and the manufacturer. The best way is to hit the streets (or wherever your consumers will be) and do a little guerilla research. Dress well, Print out a little badge for yourself stating your university or organization affiliation (Actually this works for me because the people who use my products tend to be outdoors). Try to find users where they use your products. Start with friends and family and then network out. Try to observe and RECORD EVERYTHING. DONT generate ideas-dont start to work to a solution when you dont know the entire picture.
Truthfully I hate research. It makes me very uncomfortable talking to people I dont know who are likely very busy, and likely to mistrust your motives. But it is very important and needs to be done