Recently, I read the post Avoiding the GIGO trap, by author and marketing guru Seth Godin. It mentions how several systems punish the user by rejecting inputs not suited for those systems. A seasoned or a highly qualified user usually learns how to use such a system properly through experience or through a high level of aptitude for that system, but the rest of the world continues to struggle to even gain entry. Usually the users come to know about these limitations ONLY after their input is rejected after a lot of hard work or when a sub-standard input causes the system to come crashing down on them.
Seth Godin points out that these systems try to obsess with ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ principle. He argues that is not a good thing. Examples of such systems include computer programming languages, some top-rated schools in India and Formula race cars. We’ll see why in the sections that follow.
What is Garbage In, Garbage Out?
The phrase, ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’ (or GIGO) was coined in manufacturing industries. The idea was to feed your machines with the right type of raw materials, so that the machines would give you world-class products in return. Inferior raw materials will produce low quality products and make the company inefficient. Worse, some inferior raw materials may even cause machine damage. Hence, the need for manufacturers to ensure that they get the best raw materials in the first place.
The world has moved on from manufacturing, but every field that has evolved from there, such as management, software and even sales have held onto the GIGO principle. They strive extra hard to screen the inputs so that only the best ones are left standing.
What’s wrong with it?
As long as you enjoy the superior output of such as system, you won’t see anything wrong. After all you are enjoying a world class experience. Let’s say a restaurant makes your city’s best orange pie. Upon digging deep, you realise that they corner the market’s best oranges early in the morning. It seems genius. Make sure that the oranges are the best and suddenly half of your job is done.
Things start getting frustrating when you are the one in charge of input. If you have never used the command-line or written a program before, then try to make a simple program to ask the user to enter two numbers and compute their addition. Within 10 minutes, you will realise how unforgiving a computer can be with wrong commands and even something as trivial as wrong punctuation. Priya, my wife, was exasperated after trying to learn Python and just gave up.
You will have similar frustrations when your Porsche Carrera develops wicked scratches and a broken fender on the bumpy roads of Manipur or when you are from an ethnic community which does not have the standard <first name> <middle name> <last name> format and an online web form mandates that format.
Some systems can take the GIGO principle too far and become intolerant of any imperfections in the input. Worse, there are systems that give you an inferiority complex and fall just short of calling you an idiot.
‘I say you are an idiot’
The Linux community has matured recently. Distributions like Ubuntu and SuSE are open to feedback from users. Most of the feedback is well received and requested features are released in the next version or even as tiny patches to the same version. This was not the case when I entered the world of open source software in 2003. The community was filled with programmers who thought of themselves as demigods. Their programs were extremely punishing on users, with any wrong inputs causing complete system crashes. When problems with crash reports were discussed over forums, replies like these were common: ‘You seem to lack the basic intelligence to use my program.’ Even the widely used programs, such as Apache web server, which runs 75 million websites today, used the dreaded and the insulting PEBCAK (Problem Exists Between Chair And Keyboard) error message upto 2006.
Over the last decade in India, several schools with the words ‘International’ or ‘World’ in them have sprung up in fast numbers. The admission to these schools is highly competitive and the fees exorbitant. A process very peculiar to these schools is that they conduct interviews of parents and even the children to screen students for admission. An institution which is supposed to impart education to children at the grass root level, assuming that they know absolutely nothing, expects them to already know plenty of things, enough to crack their complicated interviews. The less a child knows, the less the chance of him/her being admitted to school. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? In Seth Godin’s own words, “The extraordinary teacher adds value to every student, no matter what their home is like. She sees possibility and refuses to settle or blame the inputs.”
Some institutions that got it right
It doesn’t matter if you are in the USA, UK or India. Two people may use English in totally different styles. The choice of words and spellings change across countries, e.g. India and UK say ‘colour’, but USA says ‘color’. In fact, even if you speak or write with wrong grammar, people will understand you reasonably well. That is the strength of natural language and humans over computers and programming languages.
In 2013, India started the Aadhar system, where everyone was to be identified by a unique number (similar to social security in the US). In 6 years, Aadhar has penetrated more than 95% of India, regardless of community, age group, wealth, availability of parents / guardians or remoteness from cities. Today, essential services like gas connections, bank accounts, tax accounts and mobile phone numbers are linked to Aadhar. It is also unequivocally accepted as proof of identity. The penetration rate is due to Aadhar’s toleration with several fields that are missing for several Indians. Instead of the traditional <first name> <middle name> <last name> format, a single field called ‘given name’ identifies the person, thus accepting human nomenclature from any culture. Secondly, they have the ‘introducer system’, where someone with an Aadhar can vouch for another person who doesn’t have required proof documents such as proof of address or proof of date of birth.
Youth Hostel Association of India, called YHAI for short, is an adventure club and a group of hostels in India. They conduct more than 20 activities every year, mostly bicycling and trekking. More than 10,000 Indians take part in their activities every year. YHAI hires route guides, assigns activity leaders through volunteers and also provides tents, backpacks and food at every camping spot. For bicycling activities, they provide geared bicycles and even a workshop and a practice day for those who aren’t used to bicycle gears. Their usual activity day takes much longer than what a seasoned or an experienced person can achieve. E.g. a trek that takes only 5 hours for a fully fit, seasoned trekker can take upto 8 hours through YHAI. Long-time and regular trekkers and bicyclists often find YHAI activities boring, even frustrating. But think of it from the point of view of the beginners. Instead of rejecting beginners based on low physical fitness or lack of experience with camping, YHAI accepts everyone and then provides the means to make the experience enjoyable for the not-so-experienced. One batch of a YHAI trek or a bicycling activity can have 20 – 40 members. Usually only 8-10 of them are in top physical condition. Because they take so many members in one batch, their per-person cost is driven very low and the treks are very economical. YHAI has proved to be the trekking club for every Indian.
In the foothills of Velliangiri hills bordering the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a man named Jaggi Vasudev, fondly called by his disciples as Sadhguru, started the Isha Foundation. The foundation teaches people how to live more consciously and optimise their bodies and their lives using a series of practices such as Yoga, meditation, practising consciousness, eating fresh Satvic food and volunteering in the foundation and in rural and nation-wide projects. Here’s the best part: Entry no bar. The disciples range from ultra-rich businessmen to in-debt farmers. There are those who are restlessly angry and those who are mildly depressed. These are extremely fit people and then those who have a history of chronic sickness. There are those who talk their mouths off and those who are too shy and too much low on confidence to open their mouths. There are those who are full-time volunteers and those who visit a few times a year, just for the courses. Everyone who has been to Isha and have been regular with their courses have experienced visible changes in their health and behaviour. Several have not been to Isha for a long time, but they continue to practise what was taught and continue to gain benefits. Isha is not the type of organisation that conducts quizzes or asks for annual income before they admit people. Nor do they actively dismiss or retire people after years of service. People who part ways, deliberately do so for their own reasons.
Should control of GIGO be dismissed?
Absolutely not. The practice of controlling GIGO is essential in several fields. Here are a few examples.
Army cannot do with sub-standard products. To be at their best on the battlefield, anything that fails a quality check should be discarded immediately. This includes everything from weapons to all weather clothes. It is essential to throw stale or spoilt ingredients from the pantry. Otherwise it will damage your health. You should eliminate questionable and loss-making investment instruments from your portfolio, otherwise you will not be left with enough wealth post retirement.
One should rigorously practise GIGO control when security and well-being are at stake.
GIGO control as an iteration
An acceptable place to apply temporary GIGO controls is when you are building a system iteratively. During early stages, you neither have the time, nor the resources to cover every anomalous input to the system. In such cases, you should send a clear communication to the user in advance about how to use the system and how to avoid anomalies. An added bonus is if you can tell the user a date from which their anomalous inputs can be accepted. This is true if your system is going to be mainstream and will be widely used.
For instance, if you are making environmental friendly bags for your neighbourhood as a proof of concept, you should send out a clear communication saying that wet products are not allowed since they may tear the material of the bag. You should not wait for a user’s bag to tear apart before you send your notice. Secondly, for your bag to become mainstream and as a replacement for plastic, you should soon make your material capable of carrying wet products. So you cannot have that GIGO control permanently.
Where not to apply GIGO control
There are two places where GIGO control should not be applied.
- If it proven that a large percentage of your users will regularly provide inputs which are against your desired ideal, then your GIGO control may be too strict and a hindrance for users. The world’s biggest example is the forced classification of human names into <first name> <middle name> <last name> instead o accepting a single field called ‘full name’. It is proven sufficiently several times that the three-part classification of names works only in western countries and that large parts of Asia and Africa and even parts of Europe do not follow that format.
- GIGO control is also unacceptable if you are being lazy or unwilling to work on accepting less than ideal input to start with and depending on the rest of the system do the work for you. This is irresponsible. In Seth Godin’s words, “The thing is, ‘garbage in, garbage out’ is lazy. It’s lazy because it puts all the onus on the user or the environment. It lets the device off the hook, and puts the focus on a system, which, the device creator points out, is out of his control.”
Controlling GIGO to accept only the best quality of inputs and rejecting the rest is guaranteed to give you success. But is such success sustainable? If a sufficient number of users are out of your favour, someday a more inclusive system will come along and yours will be considered garbage!