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There is a ton of anecdotal evidence that adding more screen estate (more or larger monitors) leads to an increase in productivity, especially for programmers.

For example, where I work, all programmers have either two 20" screens or a single 24" screen. There is no agreement on which is the optimal setup.

The question has been extensively debated by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky:

More usable desktop space reduces the amount of time you spend on window management excise. Instead of incessantly dragging, sizing, minimizing and maximizing windows, you can do actual productive work.

— Jeff Atwood

Debugging GUI code with a single monitor system is painful if not impossible. If you're writing GUI code, two monitors will make things much easier.

— Joel Spolsky

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there is no indication that these effects are real, measurable and properly studied.

  • The papers linked by Jeff (and around other blog posts), are all sponsored by monitor making companies (NEC, Apple...)
  • The papers disagree on their conclusions: one says that a 30" monitor is better than smaller monitors, the other that there are diminishing returns.
  • Even the bloggers do not agree whether increasing the size or the number of monitors is the correct thing to do in order to increase productivity (Jeff thinks that very large monitors are bad, but a three monitor setup works, others say exactly the opposite).

What are some reliable, unbiased studies that describe correctly the relationships between number of monitors, size of monitors and productivity of software developers?
Is there a set up which is proven to work better than the others, or is this an unclear effect that needs more studies?

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Isn't this pretty obvious or at least easy to try for yourself? I mean letssay you are doing web design, of course having the browser window and the code editing on different screens will save you time because you don't have to minimize and maximize those windows all the time to check your work? –  Cray Apr 3 '11 at 19:03
How would someone quantify this at work? We're given a laptop and a 19" external monitor as standard equipment. I and some others now use one or two 28" monitors @ 1920x1200 either instead of or in conjunction with the 19" and laptop screen. I know am personally orders of magnitude more productive with my setup and think most of the others are as well, but how would I go about proving it? These users are scattered between Programming, Software Architecture, Project Management and Business Analysis. –  iKnowKungFoo Apr 3 '11 at 20:41
Should you clarify the question to a specific type of occupation? Investment folks need to see different markets and stock price movements simultaneously, hence they have a plethora of monitors. Jeff and Joel speak from the software development angle. Do more monitors mean more productivity for all workers, or just workers in particular industries? –  bperdue Apr 3 '11 at 21:06
My personal preference is a dual monitor setup with one showing the browser and the other showing my code. It helps not only in debugging UI code but also staying focused on the bigger picture. However, the biggest productivity increases come when people stop discussing things like which monitor size is optimal and actually get to work. –  user1487 Apr 3 '11 at 22:23
@Cray History is filled with people testing 'obvious' things and getting surprising results. For instance, isn't it obvious that heavy things ought to fall faster than light things? –  Nick Johnson Apr 4 '11 at 6:47
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2 Answers

up vote 117 down vote accepted

This is a valid question, and something that I'm partially looking into for my thesis. Based on some initial investigation, Microsoft has done quite a bit of research in that area.

Most of the papers show that increased screen estate and multiple monitor setups can indeed improve productivity by reducing detrimental effects of interruptions. Modality of interruptions seems to be a very important aspect since spatial memory and visual cues are important for reducing primary task resumption times. The paper by Baudisch especially focuses on various ways that multiple monitors can be used, and which ones are most effective for particular use cases.

Here are some paper titles that I have come across so far:

Effects of Visual Separation and Physical Discontinuities when Distributing Information across Multiple Displays (Desney S. Tan1 and Mary Czerwinski) PDF

Partitioning Digital Worlds: Focal and Peripheral Awareness in Multiple Monitor Use (Jonathan Grudin) PDF

Toward Characterizing the Productivity Benefits of Very Large Displays (Mary Czerwinski) PDF

Keeping Things in Context: A Comparative Evaluation of Focus Plus Context Screens, Overviews, and Zooming (Patrick Baudisch) PDF

Display Space Usage and Window Management Operation Comparisons between Single Monitor and Multiple Monitor Users (Dugald Ralph Hutchings) PDF

Using Peripheral Processing and Spatial Memory to Facilitate Task Resumption (Raj M. Ratwani) PDF

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+1 if you add links to your (well researched) references, thanks :-) –  Sklivvz Apr 3 '11 at 23:29
Links added :) CiteSeerX is an excellent resource for accessing papers that are often behind various paywalls –  Kosta Apr 3 '11 at 23:50
+1, great links. My own personal experience suggests that my productivity improvements come not from time saved switching between applications, but from not losing my visual train of thought. –  Chris Knight Apr 4 '11 at 14:46
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There is a study by Microsoft Research comparing a 15" XGA flat panel with a prototype 42" curved screen using three XGA projectors. They state in their conclusion

Users were significantly faster working on the large display. In addition, all but one participant preferred carrying out the tasks on the larger display surface, and user satisfaction measures were significantly better for the larger display.

Another study comparing one 1024x786 (XGA) with two XGA displays found a benefit of dual screens:

We found that multiple monitors helped reduce task time and workload in spite of a learning effect. We also examined how prior multiple monitor usage affected performance and found regular single monitor users benefited from a multiple monitor setting in terms of both task time and workload.

A third study used a 31.5 megapixel display composed of 24 17" displays. They concluded

As the pixel-count is increased (up to 31.5 million pixels) on a high-resolution (96 DPI) display, users will perform faster on some tasks, with more physical navigation and less frustration.

In this study they also make the case that the curvature of the screens is important for such large displays.

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We have dual 24" monitors for all developers and they all now find it pretty much impossible to work on a single monitor. A couple of specifics - several put the monitor their IDE is on vertical to get more lines of code, but keep the second one horizontal. Some of us tilt them back a bit so they are perpendicular to our eyes, but that creates a V between them. –  David Thielen Apr 3 '11 at 22:42
Where can I get that 42" curved screen? –  JD Isaacks Apr 4 '11 at 13:15
I use 2 - a 24" horizontal screen for visualisation, and a 20" vertical screen for code. So much easier keeping those two sides separate. I also always have the code screen on the right - not sure if any of these studies look at positioning, but I can't code on the left hand screen :-) –  Rory Alsop Apr 4 '11 at 15:29
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