Multiple monitors – a productivity tool? I think so…

Jeff Atwood (of Coding Horror) has posted about a study recently completed by the University of Utah which has researched the productivity gains by using various monitor configurations, including different sizes and multiple monitor set-ups. You can read his post here:

I too am a long time proponent of multiple monitor usage. Over the years I’ve had various configurations, my favourite being a centre 24 inch screen surrounded by to 20 inch screens… I found this to be a rather pleasant setup.

One thing that I think counts a lot toward a users enjoyment and productivity whilst using a multiple monitor rig is their previous experience of using such a set up. Most users who are “first timers” on a muti-monitor system have a rather difficult time coming to grips with some of basics like:

  • Windows pop up on the other monitor… user thinks computer is being dumb and re-opens/smash clicks icon
  • Where is the goddam mouse (I must admit this happens to me sometimes still)
  • Task bar isn’t where it’s supposed to be when working on a secondary display (see below for fix). Same for the clock and Start button.
  • Efficiently moving windows between screens (also see below for solution)

All these things are learned over time. In short I think it would be very difficult to reflect (in a University study for example) the gains made from switching from one to multiple screens – a user has to learn how to make the most out of the multiple set up before any real gains are to be reflected.

In my general experience I have found that most users will take a number of weeks to get really used to the extra screens, and even longer to take full advantage of them. If you where to study the any productivity gains, you would need to benchmark at the beginning and end of a lengthy period and take the following into account:

  • It’s a long test (weeks and months) so the user is going to get better at their work over time.
  • Testing has to be focused around general productivity – how do you measure gains made because the user isn’t concentrating so hard on window management (a pain in the bum for sure) – i.e. the user may be more relaxed because of less clutter, making them less stressed and more efficient.
  • People get gains from using a larger single display probably because they are used to using a single display to start with – perhaps re-test a group starting from smaller multiple displays and move to larger multiple displays… assuming they where already good at multiple displays to begin with (this group of subjects would be hard to find I imagine).

The other thing that I think is important to consider is perhaps MSFT didn’t build very good multiple monitor support into the OS – sure it is very simple to set up and use multiple monitors, but is it really the best experience. Maybe the test would be a lot different if the users had access to something like Ultramon…

Ultramon allows things like: drag a maximised window between screens without first restoring it, and it adds a task bar per screen, so you can see the apps that are running on a particular screen on the taskbar for that screen – brilliant! Ultramon is not free.

To summarise I don’t think it’s a fair judgement that users only improve when using multiple monitors by 44%. I also don’t think its fair to say that software developers only need one screen to “code” in… I always have a piece of Xml or some string from a watch in the other window. Also alternative monitors are great for all the little extras… we all have Skype, MSN, Email, Twitter etc to think about – there is a lot of communication going on, most of the time enough to take up an entire screen!