In Today's Down Economy, Focusing on every aspect of automotive interiors can mean the difference between a successful product and a complete failure.

Tom Miller, general manager, interior/exterior design-Toyoda Gosei North America, says his group studies the past in order to glean valuable insight into the future.

“(If you) look at history, you see trends becoming (customer) wants, then needs,” he tells conference attendees, citing air conditioning and power windows as items that eventually became essential to car buyers. “Good wants can become needs, which people come to expect.”

Miller predicts current technologies such as navigation systems and push-button ignition will evolve the same way. But predicting which interior features will follow this path is tricky and can require intensive consumer research, he says, noting different demographics demand different interior demands.

“People in their 40s to 60s like CDs, and satellite radio now is becoming popular to them,” he says. But those in their 20s to 30s “like MP3s and need a place to store (their players).”

Similarly, older customers prefer more wood trim in their vehicle interiors, while younger buyers like aluminum and carbon fiber.

“You can't guess what customers want. You have to go out and (research) and find what they need,” Miller says, adding Toyoda Gosei gathers much of its consumer information from dealerships and auto shows.

It all comes down to determining what the next big thing is going to be, he says. “You must define industry trends and find the next ‘want’ idea.”

But consumers don't always know what they want, contends Richard Vaughan, manager of the design office at Visteon Corp., a supplier of automotive interior components.

“Fifteen years ago, no consumer wanted a remote key fob; now everyone has one,” Vaughan says. “Designers had the vision to match technology to an unarticulated need of consumers.”

Visteon designers follow the 6D Process — discovery, dream, design, develop, dialogue and deliver, he says. During the dialogue phase, consumers are asked to critique a certain technology.

But it takes more than just a cutting-edge technology or feature to appeal to car buyers.

“Execution leads people to believe one car is better than another,” Vaughan says.

Trying to determine what future consumers will want calls for a firm understanding of the so-called Generation Y population, which Vaughan describes as consumers between the ages of 15-32.

“By 2012, many of them will be starting families, and they won't succumb to boring, low-status products,” he says, adding this age group is used to getting what it wants. “Gen Y is confident and success driven. They want premium style and image.”

Gail Miciuda, director-advanced engineering, International Automotive Components, says studying past market downturns will help companies emerge stronger from the current recession.

“With every downturn in the past, there has always been a rebound,” she says. “You have to focus on the opportunities.” For example, Miciuda predicts the vehicle-downsizing trend will continue, citing minicars as the largest growing segment.

As such, vehicle capacity and performance will be less important to future consumers. And since car buyers going forward likely will be more cost-conscious, it's important to deliver “perceived quality,” which Miciuda says appears to be “the biggest factor in overall satisfaction.”

Forming an emotional connection with consumers also is important, as it can result in a product that people don't really need but want anyway.

“You have to show a vehicle is worth every cent they're paying for it, and you need to bring passion in,” she says. “The power of design plays an important role.”