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Can users work more efficiently (reacting faster, or, getting more information before taking a decision) with more than one monitor or one keyboard?

It seems to be a common practice among day traders to have 6x (or even more) monitors, and more than one keyboard. Specially having more than one keyboard seems to be a handicap. And since monitors got really big at a reasonable price, I see little use in having several of them. Maybe two would be useful. One for getting the information, another for whatever action one wants to perform.

There are surely other alternatives to deal with multiple sources of information. Knowing the appropriate shortcuts well is one of them.

  • What is the UX question? – Mayo Sep 18 '15 at 23:07
  • @Mayo Can users work more efficiently? – Arnaldo Jacinto Sep 18 '15 at 23:48
  • Multiple keyboards? I think you may be thinking of multiple computers? – DA01 Sep 20 '15 at 0:51
  • Also, simple thought experiment: are you able to react faster by having more information when using your laptop screen vs. your iPhone? It would depend on how much information you need, of course, but the general rule is that the more pixels you have, the more information you can display. – DA01 Sep 20 '15 at 0:52
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This is from my own personal experiences and it seems to align with sentiments from this article on Life Hacker.

... the study came to the conclusion that it was pixels, not monitors that increased productivity. What's also surprising is that while the report mentioned that there were productivity gains in certain tasks with more screen real estate, those gains begin to taper between 26 and 30 inches, or at monitors where the native resolution is 2560x1440 or greater.

The optimal screen real estate depends on the work you deal with. Because I work in a software company, I and our developers are power users. We frequently deal with lots of open windows. Having multiple monitors/pixels increases productivity from the sense that if you multi-task or need to reference multiple items at once for your work. Physically placing these items side by side helps orientate you to the info and reduce the friction involved with window switching. So having 2 or 3 monitors boost productivity simply because I need to see a lot of stuff side by side (e.g. wireframe, story requirements, calendar, chat/email windows) in order to do my work.

We also have a secondary constraint in "snap-able" edges, based on Fitts' law. Why are multiple monitors better than a giant TV sized screen? Because each monitor (or half of a monitor) is dedicated to a specific window. More screen real estate means more space you need to move your mouse to manage your windows. Keyboard shortcut apps currently snaps to preconfigured edges on the monitor. Or you drag a window to an edge of a monitor to get windows to snap into place. This is much harder to setup if it's one giant screen.

For a typical user though (and when I'm at home), the most you'll probably be doing is browsing the net, writing an email or word processing. All of these are fairly independent tasks. The time cost of window switching is low because it doesn't happen that often. Very rarely would you need to reference one window to complete a task for another. Here, a single monitor is plenty. I use a 13" laptop at home, and the laptop screen is plenty.

  • You really covered all the bases with this answer. Nicely done! – Dan Henderson Oct 2 '15 at 2:25
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I've seen multiple people using multi monitor setups and what I took from it is that most people benefit from it if the additional screen is dedicated for exactly one task. If there are more tasks on primary and more tasks on secondary, than they loose track of what is where.

Just anecdotal evidence though, no research.

Update 5/2018: With further anecdotal evidence. I think multiple screens work well when secondary screens are used for static and passive visual overview of something (original document for translator, text of law for lawyer, commodity graph for trader, documentation/specification for developer).

  • 1
    I typically have one full screen window on each of my two monitors; on the rare occasion I need to quickly switch between three different tasks then I'll tend to half-overlap two of them on one screen. – Dan Henderson Oct 2 '15 at 2:38
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Absolutely, sometimes...

There is clear evidence that multiple monitors can drive productivity. For economic proof, we can look at work environments where performance is crucial and IT budgets are not really a concern:

  • Stock and securities trading
  • Air traffic control
  • High end multimedia production

In all of these environments it's common to see multiple monitor setups for solid productivity reasons, eg.

  • Air traffic controllers can quickly monitor runway areas and/or different data views at a glance
  • Traders can monitor portfolios in real time while doing research on another monitor. Traders sometimes have 6 or 8 monitors depending on what they are trading and with what frequency.
  • For multimedia production there is often a need to track different audio/video channels, composition vs preview vs final views, etc.

There are many more examples, but the economic analysis works pretty well here one because in these environments performance is important and cost is less of an issue so the market can drive the most productive solution with minimal friction.

Over the years I've used a lot of different setups but have settled on 6 large monitors in 3x2 array in my office. And I notice that I get a lot less work done on my 1-screen laptop when I'm on travel or out of the office:

  • For design work, it's helpful to dedicate a large screen to composition, another for file management and a third for other stuff (slack, github, mail, documentation, etc)
  • For development work I use different monitors for watching services, build process, coding, debug, and research/documentation. For example, coding to an API's is a lot easier when you can keep the documentation open in one monitor while coding in another.
  • For business meetings I often have a video conference in one monitor and the meeting docs open in two or sometimes 3 other monitors.

It's possible to replicate this using one monitor and alt-tabbing to switch windows, but it's far slower and UX studies around transitions and context switching show that there is considerable cognitive disruption from just doing something like and alt-tab, hunting for the right window, then watching the animation transition.

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The productivity boost of going from one monitor to two is very well researched, and widely accepted to be very real, for all manner of activity:

https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=research+on+multi-monitor+efficiency&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

For some industries and activities, scaling way past 2 monitors provides improvements of great significance, particularly those with specific separations. Similarly, task separation via multiple input and control devices is very effective for some activities.

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Yes, people can benefit from more workspace.

But it depends a lot on the complexity of a task. And on what can be considered a 'screen'.


If you're writing text (after you've done your research and make a setup) then you don't need any other information. And many people specifically go to a clean/minimal environment to get rid of distractions and chaos. For example hemingway or good old notepad instead of MS Word.

But if you're still in the early research phase you often switch between sources, a list of them, and a document where you outline your article, then you can benefit from multiple perspectives. The same goes for other tasks like modeling/drawing from reference, or for previewing html or programming.


Then on to the second point; what is a monitor? Like nightning mentioned, it's not so much amount of screens as it is amount of pixels and workspace.

Way back when, people only had a 14 inch CRT and 640x480 pixels. Hardly enough to hold even one app, let alone reference. So when you needed more workspace, you needed more monitors. But nowadays everyone has a 24 inch full HD screen, which has over 60 times as many pixels. Of course some of those are spent on anti-aliasing and more detail, but it's obvious that current screens easily offer twice the workable space compared to a pre-2000 CRT¹.

And interfaces have improved too. Decades ago, in the age of DOS, software ran fullscreen and you could barely switch. Then, windowed interfaces appeared, followed by window-organizational tools, and currently windows has a pretty elegant split-screen function built in. And of course Alt-Tab still works.

Essentially, we now have multiple 'monitors' when we need them, and a single large monitor when we want to present or view something, or want to work more focused.

1 - yes, there were 21 inch 1600x1200 CRTs. But those were high end, and can be equated to a current 4K 30 inch monitor.

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