Large Monitors: The Easiest Way to Increase White-Collar Productivity

Jakob Nielsen, the web usability guru, makes a point about large monitors that I completely affirm:

Big monitors are the easiest way to increase white-collar productivity, and anyone who makes at least $50,000 per year ought to have at least 1600×1200 screen resolution. A flat-panel display with this resolution currently costs less than $500. So, as long as the bigger display increases productivity by at least 0.5%, you’ll recover the investment in less than a year. (The typical corporate overhead doubles the company’s per-employee cost; always remember to use loaded cost, not take-home salary, in any productivity calculation.)

Apple and Microsoft have both published reports that attempt to quantify the productivity gains from bigger monitors. Sadly, the studies don’t provide credible numbers because of various methodological weaknesses. My experience shows estimated productivity gains of 5-10% when users do knowledge work on a big monitor. This translates into about an 0.5-1% increase in overall productivity for a person who does screen-focused knowledge work 10% of the day. There’s no doubt that big screens are worth the money.

I personally use a 2048×1536 display, and I wouldn’t even call that a really big screen. Within the next 10 years, I expect monitors of, say, 5000×3000 to be in fairly common use, at least among high-end business professionals.

Starting at 1600×1200, users rarely stretch their browser windows to the full screen because few websites work well on such a wide canvas. Big windows are magic for working on spreadsheets, graphic design, and many other tasks, but not for the current paradigm of Web pages. Today, big-screen Web users typically utilize their extra space for multiple windows and parallel browsing.

In sum: Get a big monitor — at least 1600×1200 resolution and 24 inches. It might cost a little more, but in a very real sense it may be wasteful not to.

As an aside, here is a very interesting comment that he makes on where the web may be going as monitor resolution grows even more. Very, very interesting:

To serve Web users with truly big screens in the future, we’ll probably need a different paradigm than individual pages. Perhaps a more newspaper-like metaphor or a different information dashboard will prove superior down the road.