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The Business Case for Dual Monitors

I debated posting this as there seems to be a broad consensus amongst I.T. bloggers that dual monitors should be a given for software developers. Leading the pack is Jeff Atwood, who posted about three monitors back in 2004! The message, however, has not necessarily reached the management or facilities / infrastructure people at many I.T. companies. I have talked to a number of people recently at different companies who have only one monitor, and I have had to make a business case to my management recently for supplying developers with dual monitors. So I thought I would share this business case here to make it easier for those of you stuck in the dark ages.

One frequently quoted study by bloggers is http://jonpeddie.com/publications/multiple-display-market/ which states that multiple monitors results in an average productivity improvement of 42%. Unfortunately, many then seem to conclude that developers will become this much more productive when switching to two monitors. This is not the case. As per the analysis by blogger Patrick Dubroy which is the best analysis I found of this research, this 42% is for only very specific tasks - comparing or editing information between two documents, or copying and pasting information - for which dual monitors provide a significant benefit. Patrick also quotes another research paper by Microsoft that reports a 9% improvement on more general computer tasks when going from a small display to a much larger display. Microsoft also found that user satisfaction was also significantly increased going to a larger display. Patrick very loosely estimated an overall increase in developer productivity of 3% based on the fact that developers don’t always do tasks needing two displays and are not always working on the computer.
Going with a 3% productivity increase for dual monitors leads to the following ROI calculation. The cost of a developer per year for an employer are typically at least $100,000, and I assume the employer derives higher value (return) from the developer's work than the cost. So a 3% productivity improvement results in a return of at least $100,000 times 3% = $3000. This is approximately 10 times the cost of purchasing a second monitor, which makes for a pretty hefty 1000% ROI in the first year alone, with the break-even point happening after roughly the first month.

The more important, and harder to quantify benefit, however, is the increase to developer satisfaction and motivation. The software engineering research consistently demonstrates that the largest factor influencing productivity in software development is the people doing the work. The best performing people can be over ten times (not 10% but a factor of ten!) more productive than the least productive and the best performing teams can be over three times as productive as the least productive teams. Since larger displays have been demonstrated to increase user satisfaction and decrease frustration, we can expect a direct increase in motivation. There is also an indirect increase in motivation due to developers feeling valued and important by management due to being supplied with good equipment.

While I have referred to software developers in the above business case, the same arguments apply for other I.T. professionals such as business analysts, testers, database administrators, and operational support staff. No matter your role, I believe you will benefit from having multiple monitors instead of one.

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2 Comments on “The Business Case for Dual Monitors”

  1. Steven Bishop says:

    Good piece Basil.

  2. Brian V says:

    Great post Basil. Sometimes all it takes is a friendly chat with your CEO. Several years back, one of my co-workers happened to share a lunch table with the CEO of our company. My co-worker decided that it was a prime opportunity to ask for 2 LCD monitors or a 24″ one, citing increased productivity as the key factor. The CEO set the ball in motion and after a short trial, IT began rolling out the set-up to the engineering community. I ended up also buying a 24″ monitor for home use too.

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