Posted by: mikepearsonnz | August 10, 2009

Increasing screen space increases productivity

I came across an interesting article recently, as part of my technology scanning service.

Researchers at the University of Utah did a productivity study for NEC.  They studied how quickly people performed tasks like editing a document and copying numbers between spreadsheets while using different computer monitor configurations:

  1. 20-inch traditional, 1600×1200
  2. dual 20-inch traditional, 1600×1200
  3. 24-inch widescreen, 1920×1200
  4. 26-inch widescreen, 1920×1200

Their main finding is that increasing screen space increases productivity.

There comes a point at which display space becomes so large that productivity gains flatten and eventually decline.  Productivity dropped when people used a 26-inch screen.

  • Text editing:  widescreen was consistently the best performing configuration.  Both the 24-inch widescreen and 20-inch dual screens were significantly more productive than the 20-inch single monitor configuration.
  • Spreadsheeting: the dual 20-inch screens performed the best with a slight lead over the 24-inch widescreen

Using a larger screen will improve specific tasks where data needs to be  moved or manipulated quickly.   The productivity gains compared to using a single 18″ screen are significant:

  • 20-inch dual screens :  44% gain (text) / 29% gain (spreadsheeting)
  • 24-inch widescreen: 52% gain  (text) / 26% gain (spreadsheeting)

_____________________________________________________________________________________

How can you take this knowledge and put it to work efficiently and profitably?

The next time you dispose of your PC hardware, keep your old monitors.   They have more value as a secondary screen for a knowledge worker, than being disposed of.

The next time you purchase new PCs, make sure they can support at least two high resolution screens.   Over time, technology gets cheaper but people get more expensive.  With 22-inch monitors now less than $300, consider budgeting for dual monitors for key staff.

As a final note,  if you read the report you will find that University of Utah has not researched THREE monitors.  I believe most knowledge workers, who collaborate in real-time, will eventually become productive at using three monitors.   One monitor for working on a document, a second for research, and a third for communication (email, alerts, etc).

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Responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    I imagine that the research was undertaken using a standard floating window manager.

    Using a tiling window manager, for example, can allow you to much more effectively manage your screen space, meaning that a 20″ or 22″ monitor can handle all your requirements.

    If you combine this with multiple workspaces -rather than monitors- you get a much cheaper solution that is equally if not more efficient.

    But, of course, you can’t do that on Windows…

    • Hi Jason,

      Windows is a tiling window manager already 🙂 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiling_window_manager.

      I think that highlights a more fundamental productivity learning – productivity hidden in software is less likely to be used – how many people know how to tile MS Windows vertically or horizontally, with 1-click?

      If users see two physical screens they will be encouraged to figure out how to use them.

      I did a google search for: tiling window manager productivity; but could not find any formal productivity research. I would be interested in knowing if anyone has some references.

      • Windows is a tiling window manager

        Yeah, like a Volkswagon is a Formula 1… One of the key points of a tiling wm is to remove the need for a mouse.
        A tiling manager (a real one like xmonad, for example) coupled with multiple workspaces will enhance your productivity without tempting Fitts’ Law.
        Additional physical screens, particularly large ones, just result in RSI as you move you push tens of thousands of pixels around with a mouse.
        But I wouldn’t expect research conducted by a manufacturer of displays to reach that conclusion…

      • Yes the study was funded by NEC a large monitor display – but I am inclined to think it was impartial, because the research found productivity and monitor size follows a bell curve – productivity decreased with a 26-inch monitor.

        That’s not great news for monitor makers, who want to encourage people to upgrade.

        From a CTO viewpoint, monitor prices are dropping to a point where every user can have a monitor so large that maximizing a window no longer makes sense – buying a larger monitor might actually decrease productivity in their organisations. 🙂

  2. I use multiple systems with a single monitor, and switch between them for a similar effect. Using VNC (Linux/Windows) and Remote Desktop (Windows), I work with up to 8 systems at a time. Have used multiple monitors, but they can get in the way.


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