Photo courtesy of http://www.digitaltigers.com/
There’s a lot of talk about the increases in user productivity via the use of multiple monitors. Some studies have shown that users with two or more monitors are more productive, however critics claim that these studies are funded by monitor manufacturers and as such the results are predictable – buy more monitors! Still others say that focusing on one task is more productive and that multiple monitors lead to distractions.
Here’s my take on it.
One task, two tasks, three tasks, more.
Face it, in the modern workplace we are all required to multi-task. Regardless of your job you probably have at least three applications running at any given time – email, a web browser and your primary application for instance. If you work in accounts payable that primary application might be PeachTree or Quickbooks. If you are a recruiter it might be JobDiva, Adapt or Sendouts. If you’re an attorney maybe it’s Amicus. These are the tools of your trade and you use them constantly.
For me, multiple monitors are a must. They allow me to run my primary application on one monitor (in my case it’s my PSA – Professional Services Automation software) and run email, a browser and whatever else I need in the other. This allows me to focus on my primary task – supporting customers – and still see incoming emails, browse the web, conduct a remote support session, write articles and all the other tasks I perform each day without the loss of focus that comes with switching windows.
Let’s say you work in sales. Your primary application might be a CRM such as ACT! or SalesForce. You probably spend a good portion of your day working on proposals or quotes, emailing, researching prospects, etc. as well. Using multiple monitors allows you to keep your CRM open and in front of you all day while, on another monitor, you take care of those other tasks that support the sales process.
So we are multi-taskers. Isn’t it natural that multi-monitors would benefit us?
How do multiple monitors increase productivity?
Imagine – or remember (depending on your age) – life before the personal computer, the internet and Wikipedia. You’re in high school and you have to write a report on the War of 1812. What did you do? You went to the library with a notebook and a pen and grabbed the correct volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. You sat down with the book open on your left and your notebook on your right. You read from the encyclopedia and took notes. Maybe not fun, but it worked pretty well.
Now imagine if you could only have either your notebook or the encyclopedia open at any one time. Read a little, close the encyclopedia. Write some notes, close the notebook. Back and forth. Not a very productive or efficient way of working, is it?
The same applies to working on your computer. Having to ALT-TAB back and forth between your most used applications just isn’t efficient. Copy and paste is a chore. Reading a document and sending comments via email is a pain. And if, like me, you’ve ever tried tiling your application windows you know that most of them are just a bear to use when they are not maximized.
But does this mean you need more than one monitor? Not exactly.
It’s the pixels that count
In Clay Johnson’s Lifehacker article he claims that it’s not how many monitors you have, it’s how many pixels. An interesting and valid point. The amount of screen real estate is, ultimately, what counts. If your screen is big enough and supports enough pixels then you can have multiple applications running in windows large enough that you can still be productive even though they are not maximized. Clay goes on to discuss the optimal number of pixels and what they might be. If you have time please read the article.
The case for multiple monitors
Despite the fact that I agree with Clay’s point above, for me multi-monitors are the way to go. I have a few reasons for that.
With multiple monitors you can set them up how and where you prefer. For instance, one of my attorney clients uses three monitors. They are mounted on a bracket that allows them to be rotated and used in either a landscape or portrait mode. They prefer to edit legal documents in portrait mode so they can see more text at one time. The other two monitors are used in landscape mode – one for their practice management software and the other for email, etc. With a single large monitor you can’t do this.
With multiple monitors you have built-in redundancy. If one monitor fails you can keep working on the remaining monitor(s). If you buy a single, large display and it fails you’re stuck waiting for a replacement.
I left this last for two reasons. First, the difference isn’t that much unless you start looking at very large monitors. Second, and more importantly, costs are negated by the increased productivity. Still, from a budgetary standpoint, multiple small monitors will generally be less expensive than single large ones when you compare how much real estate you get for your dollar.
A word about focus
As I mentioned at the top of this article, some say the key to productivity is focusing on one task at a time and that multiple monitors are a distraction that will actually make you less productive. I agree that focusing on one task at a time is important but I disagree with the rest of the statement.
While humans can’t truly multi-task, we can switch tasks very quickly – faster than we can switch windows on our desktops. When I write these articles I do so in my word processor. I have Word running on one screen while on another I have my browser open so I can quickly do things like pull quotes, check facts, find artwork, etc. This allows me to write and research without ALT-TABing between programs. There’s really no way I could write these posts from start to finish without being able to do those other things in conjunction with the writing. On that basis I dismiss the argument that multiple monitors are a distraction.
So what’s the truth about multiple monitors and productivity increases?
I run a small business. I don’t have the money to do a scientific study on this so all I can offer you is my observations and opinions. As a multi-monitor user I can say that I will never go back to using a single monitor no matter the size. The productivity gains I have experienced are real and significant.
As the president of a professional IT services company that has installed hundreds of these setups I can also tell you that not once has a customer ever asked me to switch them back to a single monitor. In fact, what I hear most is “can I add another monitor?” and “can we setup all our machines this way?” My customers see the value and ROI these setups bring to their organizations.
Either a single large monitor or a multi-monitor setup will increase productivity. It’s simply my opinion that the latter is the way to go.
Have you had experience with either? Share your opinion in the comments section.