Ben Nadel
On User Experience (UX) Design, JavaScript, ColdFusion, Node.js, Life, and Love.
I am the chief technical officer at InVision App, Inc - a prototyping and collaboration platform for designers, built by designers. I also rock out in JavaScript and ColdFusion 24x7.
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Ben Nadel at the New York ColdFusion User Group (May. 2008) with:

The User Experience (UX) Of Having One Computer Monitor

By Ben Nadel on

For the last 5 years, I have done my work with only a single computer monitor. In a culture where "two monitors" seems to be the minimum viable number, most developers look at me and think that I'm crazy. But, for me, the user experience (UX) of a single monitor is one of pleasure and of productivity. And, since I seem to be one of a shrinking minority, I thought I would share my perspective.


 
 
 

 
The user experience (UX) of having a single computer monitor.  
 
 
 

I'm currently on a 27" iMac. And, the truth is, I think it's too big. Well, more specifically, too wide. It could stand to be an inch or two narrower. This would bring my world into more focus. And, that's really what a single monitor is all about: focus. Everything that I need is right in front of me. And, for the most part, I can only focus on one thing at a time.

If "one monitor" is the rule, then the corollary is: all windows maximized all the time. Again, this is about focus. When a window is maximized, it becomes my world. It becomes the only thing I can see. It allows me to pour all of my attention and my energy into the task at hand. Which allows me to be productive.

When I want to jump from one application to another, I simply ALT+TAB or ALT+Tilda. I don't have to move windows around. I don't have to remember which monitor has which application on it. Everything is directly in front of me - one key-combination away.

Side Note: a single monitor also make screen sharing much easier. I never have to worry about which monitor is being share or whether or not people are seeing what I'm seeing. I turn on screen sharing and it just works.

Productivity, for me, is not defined by how fast I can perform a "context switch" (which with ALT+TAB is almost instantly); productivity is defined by how deeply and how effectively I can think about one thing at a time. With a single computer monitor rendering a single, maximized window, my universe of sensory input has been tailored to facilitate productivity. I am a single-monitor developer.



Reader Comments

I use two monitors, one is in front of me and has all my focus, the second one is on the side and I use it when I need to see the preview of what I'm coding (<3 livereload)

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I agree 100% I used to have three monitors, and over time winnowed it down to the single 17" Macbook Pro I'm on now. Everyone else in the office is on two monitors, and every time I look over their shoulder to work on some code I'm left wondering where I should be looking.

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I used to use three, when working on site then went to to two working from home. Now the second monitor is here but not plugged in to the 17 inch Dell Laptop. I use it if I need it, but that is less and less. I find it more of an irritation than anything else. In addition in the last in office gig I had, all the young programmers used their third monitors for watching movies playing games and generally wreaking havoc.

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I totally agree. I too use a 27" Apple monitor and found with OSX Mission Control and multiple desktops, i am just a swipe away. I can then run my editor and browser in full screen mode and swipe between the 2 effortlessly. Found this to be a lot more productive than 2 or 3 monitors.

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While many of my coworkers have two or three monitors, I prefer to use one "main" monitor for the majority of my work. I do have my laptop display open as well. I use it exclusively for IM windows and sometimes a debug or Fiddler window. I could never understand how my coworkers like using two monitors with the bezels between the two monitors directly in front of their face. It doesn't seem to be very ergonomic to have to turn your head to look at each monitor when they are side by side like that

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Well...in your defense a 27" iMac is pretty high-res. You can fit more on that monitor than many people can on two lower-res monitors. I like that I can have two code files open, side-by-side, in my main (27" apple) monitor, and a browser open in the other monitor, along with HipChat. My laptop has my email full-screen. Before that, I'd have one code file side-by-side with the browser.

But I get what you're saying about focus. I do have to hide some apps sometimes to keep them out of my field of vision.

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https://scontent-a-iad.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash2/t1.0-9/309237_10100585945402689_1167965778_n.jpg

I just can't feel as productive on a single monitor. I have 3 in portrait mode and 1 in landscape. The middle portrait is source code, and the luxury of portrait is that I can get 1000000% more source code on screen at the same time and better grasp the entire file than in landscape. On the 2nd portrait I have the web app I'm developing, and on the 3rd ( to its right ) a fullscreen, full-height Firebug. On the landscape monitor I have a MySQL IDE, remote desktop to manage servers, IM, task manager, email, other glanceable info. I've gone back and forth between a single monitor over the years and various permutations of a total of 5 monitors. This pure, familiar, guessable, highly iterable monitor/workflow layout, I'd bet a lot of money, makes me infinitely more productive than a single 2560x1440 would, but I have no proof.

I find that a single monitor is way more fun and comfortable for casual computer use and more fun stuff. I actually keep a 27" iMac in my guestroom and like to use it just for that, but for web development I just cannot feel as productive. That all may change as soon as the 65" Panasonic 4k t.v. w/ 60Hz over Display Port drops down a few more grand so I can try that out as my "single monitor" though :)

That all said, I see where you're coming from and have shared some of your feelings intermittently through the years. I can imagine multiple monitors being extra rough too if you're using glossy screens like iMacs and thunderbolt displays.

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This iMac is definitely a nice display; but, my single-monitor approach has been going on for years, even when I had a smaller square monitor (I think it was from Dell). That said, I am intrigued by putting monitors into portrait mode - I would much rather have more vertical space than horizontal space. With a side monitor, I already find that I have to make my "file tray" (file list in IDE) much wider than I normally would just to get the "content" in front of me.

@Sharon, it's funny you mention being able to see code side-by-side. When I discovered that I could do that that in SublimeText, I got really excited. But, I rarely do it anymore because I started to confuse myself.

I think ultimately, my brain is only capable of a really simple mental model - and anything that has to be kept in my mental RAM seems to befuddle me. I think if you look at my coding style, this is also present - I use a lot of whitespace so as to "isolate" concepts. If I see too many concepts in the same tiny area, I tend to not be able to focus on any of them.

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@Ben,
If you've never tried it... you owe it to yourself to RUN TO YOUR NEAREST HARDWARE STORE AND FIGURE OUT A WAY TO TRY PORTRAIT. Portrait also completely transforms web browsing. You can now see way, way, way more of a web site. Here's a quick demo:

What I see in landscape:
http://screencast.com/t/tUO1IjmdObr

What I see in portrait:
http://screencast.com/t/6o39UgYp7

It's like a whole new world. A world that constant scrolling is the cassette tape of.

I know exactly what you mean about making the file panel wider than you want it to on single landscape monitors, I hit that issue on laptops while traveling and personally end up making the IDE about 75%ish of the width and just leaveing dead space to its left where you can see whatever's underneath it.

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To me, I'd probably be happy with a single 27" monitor, because its all about screen estate. I can't afford high resolution displays, so several smaller resolution displays is the next best thing.

I think if you asked people if they would prefer a triple/quad monitor setup, or a single (reasonably large) 4K monitor, most would go for the 4k.

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NXRK, the problem is no such thing yet as a "resonably large 4k monitor" that's within most humans' price range.

There's a 39" Seiki, but it's limited to 30Hz so it's unusable as a computer monitor ( my opinion, I bought one and the cursor, animation, and keyboard input rendering lag were too severe to feel comfortable with it. It felt like I was on a slow computer ). There are a few 30"-ish options, but those hover at around $3,000 a piece and for a lot of people's setups they'd need to invest in a new graphics card to be able to use those at 60Hz, which may also mean a new power supply if not new laptop entirely, an even bigger investment than the already staggering price point.

Panasonic makes a 65" t.v. with Display Port 1.2, which means it can be used as a 4k computer monitor, and I've been foaming at the mouth over it for a long time now but it's just way too expensive. I think last I checked it was sitting about about $5,000.

There are a bunch of smaller options, but the pixels are so small on those that you have to either be breathing directly onto the glass or turn up text scaling which to me defeats the point.

A year or two from now I'm sure it'll be a different story, but at the moment, as far as I've researched, 4k is pretty much just not an option unless you have an unlimited tech budget ( in which case, hi, here is my resume. I'd like a job and 3 65" 4ks mounted on a wall in front of a standing desk pleasethx :)

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Ughhhh! I just checked it and it's on sale for $1,500 off at Best Buy right now. $3,500 is a pretty amazing price point compared to its competition like the 30" Sharp that Apple.com sells. Maybe we're a lot closer than I thought.

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Two 19in non-widescreen monitors. I'm with you on disliking wide screen anything, except a movie in an actual movie theater. Most actual work (documents, etc) is done on items fitting more of a portrait orientation (or at least not so wide to be "wide"), so I think it's the influence of movies and the use of computers as an information appliance that is forcing the wide-screen on everyone.

When I was single-monitor oriented, I full-screened (maximized) the windows all the time and alt-tab'd between them. With two large (yes, 19in is large in my book and, yes, I'm old) monitors, I rarely full-screen the windows. I even have an app I use (MaxMax) that limits the size of maximized windows so I can still see a bit of my backdrop and the edge of other windows.

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I tried 3 monitors (15" MacBook Pro plus 2 monitors) but really did not like it - too many issues I found. I found that the third monitor didn't have a good enough response (I used a USB monitor input) to be truly useful.

What I find that works the best is 1 24" monitor which has the main focus of my work, and the MacBookPro screen which handles all my secondary stuff - email, google plus etc. - things I don't have to pay immediate attention to. This works for me quite well, both for my own stuff (with the MacBookPro) and my work related efforts (with a Dell -ugh- laptop).

But I imagine a 27" iMac has enough screen space to duplicate my efforts. Except you can't take the iMac out with you when you really need to get out of the office for your own sanity's sake.

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I have been working on a single 30" for the last couple years. But I would actually love to have more monitors. Problem is that the 40 pound speakers with 8" woofers right next to the monitor mean that any other monitors would be way too far off to the side of my vision to be very useful.
Of course I could always move the speakers, or get smaller speakers. Not!

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I've been a 2 monitor gal for the last 5 years and am contemplating on getting a 3rd one :) I'm currently using 23 inch monitors and have my code in front of me and a browser, Enterprise Manager, etc in the monitor to the left of my view. That leaves me with enough space on the right to have my MacBook Pro for testing in Mac environment. I'm running my test environment on a Dell Precision T1650 w/32 Gb of RAM desktop, Dell Precision M6500 server in a laptop + the MacBook Pro.
Did I tell I love gadgets? hehe

You really need to give the 2 monitor environment a try.

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@Larry C.,
I know what you're talking about Larry, I tried to use DisplayLink adapters to add a 4th and 5th monitor to my Mac Pro a few years ago. Unfortunately the drivers for OS X just aren't there and responsiveness is pretty terrible. You may or may not be happy to know that USB 3 versions of those adapters are extremely good and give very close to full native responsiveness on Windows 7+.

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Cool. But have you thought about using Virtual Desktops?
Trust me, they will even increase your productivity.

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I have been using double screen since that I thought I have invented :) last year i have switched to 29". that is only screen you can fit fully 2 webpages side by side. you can stick to single screen just try out 29". not cheap though!

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I've seen this "4K" thing come up a lot recently. I'm entirely sure what it is. Is it just the next thing after "Retina" displays? My iMac is non-Retina and the quality seems really good to me. My iPhone is Retina - the only retina device that I own. It seems good. I'm sure one day I'll have a retina display. I'm wondering if my eyes will be able to tell the difference.

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@Lyubo,

When I first got my mac, I tried "Spaces." But, I didn't really "get" it. I actually found the switch from space-to-space to be sluggish - though, I'm told you can turn off the delay.

That said, when I have all my window maximized all the time, I think the concept of spaces or desktops becomes a little less meaningful - the only thing I can ever see is the one window I'm using. If you weren't a window maximized, I can see the value of having "sets" of apps open at one time. But, I don't think it would make a difference for my usage patterns.

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@Ben,

I'm using Virtual Desktops from http://virtuawin.sourceforge.net/
I'm really happy with that software.
I'm working on 8 desktops and I'm switching between them easy
and fast using ALT + 1,2,3...
The idea is that all my programs are running at all the time
and when I switch to a different desktop, I don't have to maximize
the window. Also I don't have to open and wait for a program to load
when I'm using the desktops.
This way I can benefit from having 16GB RAM, because I'll my software for development and virtualization is running all the time.

I really encourage you to try that program for at least half a day and see how it's working.

regards
Lyubo

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I'm with Ben, virtual desktops are the worst thing ever and only slow you down. In my opinion, fullscreen mode on OS X is just totally broken period. Having to wait and watch a frivolous animation just to toggle apps in and out of fullscreen and then to have them treated like separate desktops is silly and counter productive.

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@Ben,
4K will not make any visible difference. today's new led screens (phones, laptops, monitors etc..) are already around 2K.
You are developer you don't need more resolution you need more space. also you need to watch some companies such as samsung, lg and some others(this might not be case anymore). they will put 1920x1080 in that large screen which technically doesn't give you more space.

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I use 3 monitors and frequently dock applications on either side of one or more monitors. I don't see how 1 monitor can be *more* productive unless you keep things open on the other monitors that are distracting (tweetdeck, facebook, etc.).

I will say though.. that IM can sometimes be challenging when you have multiple monitors. Finding that pesky window is sometimes a chore. :)

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@Ayhan,

Not true. 4k will make a HUGE difference for computer use. It's basically a giant step up in resolution. So this t.v. for example:

http://www.bestbuy.com/site/panasonic-65-class-64-1-2-diag--led-4k-ultra-hd-tv-2160p-120hz-smart-3d-hdtv/1751564.p?id=1219063233734&skuId=1751564&productCategoryId=abcat0101001

Is "4K", and what it lets you do is use it at a computer monitor at 4x the normal 1920x1080 resolution, giving you a resolution of 3840x2160. Ben's 27" iMac for example is 2560x1440, so 4k is a big step up resolutionwise from there ( 50% more pixels ).

To be clear, "retina" is meant to mean any resolution high enough that you no longer discern pixels at normal/expected viewing distances. HiDPI rendering is a different thing, which is what happens on retina MacBooks. They run very high resolutions and then simulate lower resolutions to make things look crisper and smoother.

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@David

3840x2160 seems more than a little useless.

Thanks for the tip about "4k" -- I'll be sure to stay away from such devices. I'm sure everything on them will be so small I'll have to have a microscope to read anything on them.

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@David,
I am sure it is good tech. But higher resolution for what? Why spend so much?
I am sure it will show some difference on TV or games. Here we are discussing desktop monitors which are used for work. If you are telling me 4K is much healthier; that would be another case and I will need to do some research. Show me article or research shows that it is easier to read or stare for 8 hours. 4K will be standard in few years anyways.

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@Sean,
If you think higher resolution is bad, you either fundamentally misunderstand what resolution is or have a job that has pretty light performance requirements. There are *endless* benefits to higher resolution displays. If you've ever tried to write and debug code on a 13" MacBook Pro, for example, you know what I'm talking about. 1280x800 is all but unusable for debugging a web app with Firebug up, there's just not enough resolution to be efficient.

Interesting article on a shop that's been developing on 3840x2160.
http://tiamat.tsotech.com/4k-is-for-programmers

No one is saying you should try to work on a 4k screen that's a normal monitor's size. I had the Seiki 39" for a while when it first came out and text was totally comfortable and the resolution was amazing and I consider myself someone that struggles with small text on monitors. You can keep so many apps onscreen at once that I feel like if you'd try it there's no way you could knock it.

@ayhan
For productivity, pure and simple. That's really the only argument right now ( other than that the 4k t.v.s have amazing picture quality and everything looks more vivid and beautiful, at least the ones I've seen ).

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@Phillip,

I gave up on all the notifiers a few years ago, there is only one now that bothers me and that is outlook, but then again I close outlook sometimes for hours at a time.

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