Be Productive! Get a Bigger Screen

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New research indicates that an increase in productivity comes with an increase in monitor size. But Dr. James Anderson says there are diminishing returns — and you might be better off simply buying a second average-sized screen.


Bigger is better, up to a point. Get your minds out of the gutter. I'm talking about computer screens. And more screens can increase your productivity, up until a point. This was all found in a recent study funded by NEC, which makes computer monitors, but then vetted by the University of Utah's research board. One of the members of that study joins us to break it down a bit. Welcome, Dr. James Anderson, professor of communications at the University of Utah. Hi, Dr. Anderson.

Dr. JAMES ANDERSON (Communications, University of Utah): Good morning.

STEWART: Before we get to your findings, would you set the stage for me about who was tested and how the tests were conducted?

Dr. ANDERSON: Sure. In this particular study, we had 96 university and non-university personnel, and they basically participated in a study which looked at a single 20-inch traditional aspect monitor, a dual 20-inch traditional aspect monitor and a single 24-inch widescreen. They did this - the study looked at their effectiveness over text documents and spreadsheets in doing common editing work that would happen in an office place.

STEWART: Well, let's break the findings down into two categories. You have size of screen and the number of screens. When you had the 20-inch monitor versus, say, a 24-inch monitor, what happened?

Dr. ANDERSON: You get a big bump in terms of effectiveness in performance and preference for that particular screen. What we show is you get about an 18 percent better performance than the single 20-inch display on the 24-inch widescreen.

STEWART: So does this follow a trend? Should I now ask my employer for a big honking monitor? Am I going to be more productive?

Dr. ANDERSON: Technology gives you the opportunity to be more productive, it doesn't make you more productive. Because not only does size matter, but it also matters what you do with it. So, the issue comes about at the kind of work that you do. What we're trying to do is match the work footprint with the real estate of a desktop. So if you ordinarily use multiple screens or have multiple applications open at the same time, then you're going to benefit from either a wider screen or multiple screens.

STEWART: But what if I decide I want a 26-inch screen or a 28-inch screen? Will my productivity go up?

Dr. ANDERSON: So is there a point where you actually reach a decline? Or, as we call it, the "knee of the current," in terms of the effectiveness of it? And I think that's probably true, but it's in relationship to the work you actually do. So that if the work that you do can be handled easily in a 24-inch screen, going to a 26-inch screen might make you feel better about your work or feel better about yourself, but it probably is not going to change your performance, and actually, might cause a slight decline, because you have to manage more of that real estate on your desktop.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about when I have more than one screen. This is my first job where I actually had more than one screen. When I saw the other one, I thought, what do I do with that?

Dr. ANDERSON: Right.

STEWART: You have two 20-inch monitors. What does that do to productivity?

Dr. ANDERSON: Well, the advantage of dual screens is the applications pop up full on the screen, and you don't have to do any manipulations of the windows themselves. You do have to do typical manipulation of the windows with window segmentation or screen segmentation as it's called when you bring up multiple applications on a single screen. There's advantages and disadvantages to each. But if you do ordinary text editing and you want a full text display, it's probably easier on dual screens than it is on a widescreen.

STEWART: Let me move it forward the same way. You said there's a point where the size of the screen doesn't really necessarily impact your productivity, maybe even makes it go down. What about three monitors, four monitors? Should I be bugging my boss for more?

Dr. ANDERSON: You know you - the issue has to do with the size of the footprint of the work. So if you ordinarily require four different windows of information in order to do your work, then multiple screens is going to be the way to go, because the applications pop up full within that particular screen, and you have a separate screen for every one of your applications.

That really eases the manipulation of data and information as you move from one source to another source to another source. But if you're going to be using just two sources of data, four screens doesn't really have to do with your performance. It has to do with your self-image, I suspect.

STEWART: I also understand that using more than one screen, at least for one profession, doesn't really work out. For graphic artists and graphic design?

Dr. ANDERSON: Well, the graphic artists - very interesting. In our discussions with them what they say is that they like to toggle between windows, so you use the all tab device, and you just pop between presentations. And the reason they do that is because they can use the registration of the image on the retina as they compare one image to another.

So if they're making slight changes in a graphic design, and they want to see what the effect of it is, they can toggle quickly back and forth between that. If they literally have to move their eyes from one screen to another screen, that reduces that registration.

STEWART: I wondered about eyestrain and the ability to focus on two screens or three screens rather than one screen. Did you see or have any anecdotal evidence of people in your studies saying, you know what, I'm just going to stick with one screen, I don't want any more screens or a bigger screen?

Dr. ANDERSON: Well, those are really two different questions. Let me take eyestrain first of all. As we get an aging workforce and we go to the larger monitors what that allows you do it is use a larger zoom rate so that you can actually display your text in quite large type. And maybe you don't have to use your computer glasses as you're looking at the screen because it's big enough for you to read without those.

We notice errors creep into work as people miss a comma, they miss a double space. They miss a number being wrong because the presentation is too small for them to pick that up. So the larger screen allows you to display it in a bigger print size. Sort of the Reader's Digest large print edition of it and that's very helpful.

The other question about whether or not you might have a particular preference for single screen or dual screens or large screens or regular screens. That really is a matter of preference, and people have devised systems of work for themselves. And when they're comfortable with that for a particular display configuration there is some discomfort in going to new display.

I have one particular example. A colleague of mine who's an editor still works on a 17-inch screen. And even though I took him into the laboratory and demonstrated to him that he could do the work that he does faster on a dual screen display, he still goes back to the 17-inch. He doesn't want to go to dual screen.

STEWART: He just doesn't want to. Dr. James Anderson is a professor and director for the Center of Communications at the University of Utah. He authored a recent report that showed productivity linked to computer size. The study was funded in part by NEC. Thank you, doctor.

Dr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

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