As I mentioned previously, I've been learning a lot about something called "Contextual Inquiry" which is similar to "Ethnographic Research". This article touches on the basics.
The premise is that you work directly with and observe users before making any judgements/assumptions about their needs. Using contectual inquiry, a team builds a reality-based model of how a group is really working together.
Part of this process is the development of personas. As the paper states:
Personas are archetypal users of an intranet or website that represent the needs of larger groups of users, in terms of their goals and personal characteristics. They act as 'stand-ins' for real users and help guide decisions about functionality and design.
I'm becomoing a believer in contextual inquiry -- I think it may be a key to assessing real needs through discovering the reality of how a group behaves and works together.