Monitors: Does Size Really Matter?

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been exposed to a number of varying working conditions that either enhanced or negated my productivity. In the last 6 years though, one working condition that I have become increasingly used to (and at an alarming rate) is how much I love my dual 30 inch monitors at work. So much so, that I have almost taken them for granted. Recently, I had an opportunity to explore another company and look at their working conditions. The culture was good, but the one thing I noticed was how small their monitors were. Their developers were using 17 inch monitors or worse, the laptop screen. It made me realize how much I appreciated my monitors and the ability that my company had to spend that money on those monitors.

dual-dell-screens

However, that got me thinking… Does size really matter? It’s a question often asked with a different connotation however to a developer, does screen real estate really matter? I decided to look both externally and internally for an answer.

Conducted Studies

There have been a number of studies conducted specifically looking at this question. Often times, companies need proof that investing in hardware and equipment can have a significant return on investment. So it was no surprise to me that I was able to quickly find these studies online.

Jon Peddie Research

In April of 2006, the New York Times posted an article written by Ivan Berger referencing a survey study that Jon Peddie Research conducted measuring the productivity that occurred when a second monitor was introduced. In that research, the study found  a considerable boost in productivity measuring 20 percent to 30 percent. The research also found that nearly everyone that was included in the study agreed that there was a need for a multimonitor setup believes they would realize increased productivity with more screen real estate.

The article doesn’t go into detail on the survey specifically, however the author gives some insight into how working with a second monitor helps him work as a writer. “I can write this article in one screen while I look at the second screen to refer to an earlier draft, a website or a photo,” says Ivan.

Microsoft Research

In September of 2003, a few years earlier, Microsoft released results on a research survey identifying whether having multiple monitors led to more productivity. While the article does not go into detail on how the results were measured, Microsoft concluded that adding a second monitor can increase productivity by 9 to 50 percent. It also found that the entire pool of test subjects liked having a second monitor and added “Give someone a second monitor, let them use it for a while, and then try to take it away. It just isn’t going to happen.”

University of Utah

In 2010 NEC commissioned University of Utah to do a Productivity Study to compare single and dual traditional aspect displays with a widescreen display over productivity. The study compared 26 inch widescreen monitors, 24 inch widescreen monitors, and 20 inch monitors in traditional aspect ratios. The study found that using one larger monitor or using dual monitors helped users complete tasks as much as 52 percent faster, creating a return on investment of almost two and half hours per day. In addition, the study found that users prefered using a 26 inch monitor or dual 24 inch monitors over a single 20 inch monitor and that of those users, they performed better at text-editing tasks when using the larger monitors.

In conclusion, the study found that based on user performance and preference from the study, a large widescreen or multi-monitor setup is recommended in any situation where the use of multiple documents or files is an ordinary part of the work.

Pfeiffer Consulting

In 2005, Pfeiffer Consulting was commissioned by Apple to study the 30 inch Apple Cinema HD Display and it’s effects on task completion when using larger monitors. I find this study the most interesting as it relates to 30 inch monitors which seems to be the ideal size for me. The following results are pretty amazing.

      • Overall, users on the 30 inch monitor completed tasks 39% to 74% faster compared to users on 17 inch screens.
      • Took twice as long to combine information from Excel with a Word document on a 17 inch monitor over a 30 inch monitor.
      • Took three times as long to combine and position image elements in Photoshop on a 17 inch display than on a 30 inch display.

In summary, their study found that size does indeed matter. The study also suggests some psychological commonalities. Much like how having a larger work area/desk makes it easier to work and feel at ease, so does having more screen real estate. Having a smaller monitor forces the user to move things around and resize windows and minimize constantly.

My Own Experience

As a Developer

Using 30 inch monitors, especially two of them allows me to keep Visual Studio open and maximized allowing me to see 500% more code in one frame than that over my 17 inch laptop. I am also able to keep Visual Studio helper aids, like Resharper, TDS, and even Object Explorer open on the side and bottom rails without impacting code viewability. On the other monitor, I have several windows open while coding. The page I’m writing, which allows me to simply move the mouse and back forth without the need of additional clicks rearranging windows. I can also keep other windows open like chat windows, Skype, and other communication devices in the same view. All of this has led me to write more code, more efficiently, and in less time. Additionally, carving out a little real estate for things like iTunes or watching a video can help with the much needed, what I call, Developer Distractions.

As a Manager

As a manager, I constantly find myself creating Word and Excel documents based off of a series of inputs such as web pages, analytics, and time capturing tools. These reports are more easily written when I can view multiple documents side by side without the need of constantly switching windows.

As an IT Administrator

I could potentially write an entire blog post just on the benefits that having as much screen real estate as possible as an IT administrator. Between having bandwidth monitors running, multiple remote desktop sessions, and as many Nagio NagViz screens up as possible, I still find myself running out of screen real estate on my dual 30 inch monitors and 17 inch widscreen laptop that I use as a third monitor when docked.

In Conclusion

While it’s difficult to really put a value number on the benefits and ROI that is to be gained by using multiple monitors and larger monitors, I think the study results as well as my own experience speak for themselves. If you’re running a development shop and your developers are using small monitors, you are missing out on an incredible boost in productivity and output by simply investing a few extra dollars to the improvement of your development culture.

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