You don't have to strain your brain too much to understand why Ikea bought TaskRabbit, a startup that provides a marketplace for household chores and other simple tasks. There's an obvious synergy between the two businesses: Consumers can buy furniture at Ikea, then hire someone from TaskRabbit to assemble the darn things.

"We will be able to learn from TaskRabbit's digital expertise," Ikea CEO Jesper Brodin told Recode, "while also providing Ikea customers additional ways to access flexible and affordable service solutions to meet the needs of today's customer." TaskRabbit, which is profitable, will likely continue to operate independently, but may receive an influx of cash from its new parent company.

But there's another, less obvious link between the two businesses. Ikea does extensive ethnographic research, examining potential customers' needs and behaviors, then shapes its products accordingly. (Ethnography is a form of market research in which the researchers "visit consumers in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a nondirected way," Intel ethnographer Ken Anderson explained in the Harvard Business Review.)

Ikea's extensive Life At Home series has reports delving into morning routines, food practices, and the fundamental nature of homes. The company also operates an experimental "innovation lab" called Space10 in Copenhagen. "A report on how and where mothers play with their children led to the the design of a coffee table with rounded corners," USA Today described in May. "Research about how lighting affects a home dweller's mood produced an app-based dimmer that can adjust light color, tones and brightness."

In comes TaskRabbit. The younger company has a huge trove of data about how people live their domestic lives -- especially affluent millennials, a demographic always coveted by big box retailers. TaskRabbit can help Ikea fill in the gaps. In a way, it's reminiscent of Unilever buying Dollar Shave Club in order to catch up to the age of the internet.

TaskRabbit is not restricted to a couple of cities the way a team of researchers is; its data covers 39 metro areas in the U.S., plus London. And on top of that, TaskRabbit's data is backed up by financial transactions. What people will say they care about is one thing, but what they're willing to pay for is a much more powerful signal. Of course, Ikea has plenty of information about the products people will buy, but the services they find crucial -- that's another matter.

In 2016, Ikea's then-head of research Mikael Ydholm (currently a communication and innovation strategist) described the process of developing the Sladda bike to Sight Unseen: "That story started three years ago when we were looking at macro trends in society, one being that people want to live a healthier lifestyle, and another being that a lot of young people can't afford to and don't see any reason to buy a car. We realized that we could make not only a bike, but an urban biking system." Ikea went into the field and talked to bicycle enthusiasts, then designed the Sladda based on what was missing from the existing market.

"Human beings change all the time," Ydholm said. "The world is changing, so we need to constantly understand new behaviors and new generations coming up." And he's right: Although the fundamentals of human nature shift slowly, the numbers of "digital natives" are swelling, and TaskRabbit can help Ikea figure out how best to serve them.

Published on: Oct 2, 2017