Well, to get a clue, I decided to try it out. (In all honesty, I couldn't do the farming thing... I did Cafe World instead, which is the same game design only about running a Cafe). I BECAME the customer. I have been playing for nearly a year and have found many subtle elements about the experience that reinforce my gaming behavior. I have such a good understanding of being a customer that I can easily envision leveraging these elements in non-game experiences to make them more compelling and fun.
What I did was to appease my own curiosity, but I've applied this same approach to product design. When at all possible, I try to become the customer. For example, recently I was working on a project where my customer is a person who needs funding to start a small business. So, what do I do? I ask my friends and family for money, try to get a loan from a bank, from Lending Club or Prosper, and look broadly for ways to find cash. This gives me some direct personal experience with the customer's experience.
As a method, it isn't as powerful as solving a problem you already have, and it should, ideally, be combined with methods that get you experience with the target customer (you might not really be 'typical'). But, it can get you empathy pretty quickly.
The key to this method is to do the thing the customer does and make it a part of your life. Become the customer for real. If you sell cars, buy a car. If your customer runs a small business, start a business. If your customer is a student, go to school.
Many companies encourage this behavior in their employees.
- Harley-Davidson employees almost all ride.
- Southwest executives fly coach (heck, everyone does!).
- TurboTax employees at Intuit do their taxes with TurboTax.
99 more methods to come...