The Computer Component
In today’s modern world, there is little debate over whether people in the workplace need computers. Computers offer a large range of services ranging from communication to inventory control to financial functions. However, they come with a price tag and, generally speaking, the best computers are the most expensive. As a result, businesses are often concerned about when to upgrade computers and what specific components they should use to upgrade.
If the purpose of a computer is to compute large amounts of data and each computation takes weeks to run, then faster is better. On the other hand, if the primary purpose of a computer is to enhance office productivity (for example, through word processing, email, spreadsheets, and presentations), how fast does that computer really need to be?
The Human Component
Further complicating the issue is Moore’s Law, which states that computers double in processing speed without any increase in cost every 18 months. So, approximately every year and a half, businesses can spend around the same amount of money for the same number of computers—but for ones that are twice as fast.
Unfortunately, the human performance component does not increase at the same rate. Expert in human-computer interaction (HCI) Dr. Dan Olsen states, “The exponential growth in computing stands in stark contrast to the growth in human capacity to perceive, remember, and express information. The curve describing the change in human capacity over time is flat. Our personal capabilities are not changing.”
If computers are always getting faster, but people are not, how can we maximize employee productivity when it comes time to upgrade computer systems?
Recent HCI work has revealed that acquiring faster and faster machines is not necessarily the best way to boost people’s productivity. It turns out that having more display real estate—more space on monitors to see and comprehend a larger amount of data—is better for most businesses than owning the fastest computers.
The term “human component” refers to a device that increases human productivity without necessarily increasing computer productivity. A larger, higher-resolution monitor displays more pixels. This does not speed up computer processing time, but it does have vast potential to increase human productivity. A mouse and keyboard can also be considered human components as they do not increase the computation speed of the computer, but can improve human productivity.
Classic Example: Betty and Bob
As an example, let us examine two business analysts, Betty and Bob. Betty and Bob have the same job description and do the same work every day. As business analysts, they spend the majority of their time with large amounts of data culled from databases and large spreadsheets. Both use email extensively and must provide regular presentations to upper management. In addition, they both have an equivalent computer upgrade budget.
Bob purchases the fastest computer he can for his money and chooses the default 17-inch monitor. His rationale is that the faster his computer operates, the faster he can complete his work.
Betty, on the other hand, buys a decent computer, one that would have represented the top of the line two years ago, but it is not as fast as Bob’s. Instead of spending the extra money on speed, she buys a 30-inch monitor.
Who is more productive as a result? Bob’s machine is quicker and boots up several seconds faster than Betty’s in the morning. Bob’s machine is also faster in that it can calculate large numbers faster than Betty’s. In addition, when he sorts his spreadsheets and conducts database queries, his machine returns the results slightly faster.
Nevertheless, according to recent HCI research, Betty will most likely be more productive because she invested in the human component of her computer system. She has more information displayed at one time on her monitor, which, in turn, enables her to take advantage of the human side of the equation.
The Pros of Larger Displays
Bob purchased the default 17-inch monitor. The highest resolution, or the largest pixel count that it can display at once—which equates to the maximum amount of information that can be displayed at once—is is 1,280 by 1,024 or a total of 1,310,720 pixels. On the other hand, Betty’s 30-inch monitor has a resolution of 2,560 by 1,600, a total of 4,096,000 pixels.
Betty’s 30-inch monitor can display over three times as much information as Bob’s 17-inch monitor. Bearing that fact in mind, here is a short list of how Betty might be more productive because of her larger monitor:
1. Increased Insight into Data
According to recent game research on large displays, expert game players were able to beat other expert game players when the only variable that differed was display size. The expert game players almost always won when they were using large displays, but almost always lost when it was their turn to play on smaller displays.
Although conducting business can differ quite a bit from playing games, the reasons why people win or lose in business are the same as the ones highlighted in the game player experiment. The larger displays allowed the expert game players to take advantage of being able to see more information at once and use fewer mouse clicks to control the game (see the second point below). Because they were able to see more information at once, the players gained greater insight into the current state of the game and, therefore, created better strategies.
Often, seeing the “big picture” is more important than having the world’s fastest computer. One very important observation from the experiment was that the game players were able to create strategies that they indicated they would not have been able to formulate without the ability to see the literal “big picture.” Seeing more text at a time can help with reading comprehension, even for text-only tasks.
2. More Time for Primary Tasks
Less time is devoted to window management by computer users working with larger monitors—the smaller the monitor, the more time is consumed moving applications around, scrolling through large data sets, and clicking buttons. HCI researchers consider window management a “secondary task” that only helps to facilitate the “primary task.” Window management with a small monitor is like constantly managing business papers on a small desk. Is it better to spend a large amount of time managing business papers and organizing them or is it better to spend most of that time exploring spread-out business papers on a large desk and gaining insight from them?
Larger monitors can offer 90-percent less window management than smaller monitors. Other researchers have shown that people are generally more productive with larger monitors than smaller monitors. They have also demonstrated that a wider monitor can offset the gender bias that is apparent in three-dimensional (3D) navigation.
3. Decreased Stress Levels and Better Solutions
When people have to remember more, they tend to focus on fewer possibilities and fewer possible solutions. In other words, when people can only see a limited amount of their data, they have to remember the rest, which tends to limit them to fewer solutions and fewer strategies. Exacerbating the issue is research that shows that people can only keep five to nine chunks of data in their short-term memories at a time.
The ability to see more of one’s data reduces user stress as this utilizes more external memory (the monitor) and less cognitive memory. Just as writing a list down on paper can relieve the burden of remembering the information—which frees the mind up to perform the task at hand—having a larger monitor enables people to access more information at once and thus to focus more energy on solving the problem as opposed to remembering facts. In addition, increased display space can enable users to retain greater amounts of data in their long-term memories.
The Cons of Large Displays
1. Lack of Office Space
If people are using larger monitors, then there is less space for people to store other items such as papers and books. However, one positive development has been that most modern monitors are relatively thin in comparison to older monitors and have smaller desk footprints. Most modern monitors can also be mounted on walls.
2. Adjustment Time
There is a certain adjustment period required for people to become acclimated to larger monitors, which can temporarily slow productivity. During this period, the user may be unable to find the mouse cursor on the larger monitor or not know where pop-up dialog boxes are supposed to appear. However, an experiment that transitioned people from a single monitor to a nine-tiled, multiple-monitor setup found that people who have the hardest time adjusting take, at most, two weeks to adjust.
Clearly, faster computers are preferable to slower computers as they enable people to perform more computations in the same amount of time. However, faster computers do not necessarily help people gain insight faster, if at all. On the other hand, larger monitors allow people to gain greater insight and, subsequently, create better strategies because they are able to absorb larger amounts of data at once. Being able to view more data can also decrease stress levels as the user does not have to utilize brainpower to commit as much information to memory.
In addition, larger monitors result in a general increase in productivity as people are able to focus more on primary tasks and spend less time on secondary tasks, like scrolling and repositioning applications.
In conclusion, when businesses consider computer system upgrades or purchases, they should consider exactly where that money goes. It may be more beneficial to upgrade not just the computer processor components, but the human components, as well.
Robert Ball, PhD
Robert Ball, PhD, is an assistant professor of computer science at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Dr. Ball obtained his doctorate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Previously, he worked at Pennzoil and NuSkin as a software developer. His work has focused mainly on understanding how to increase human productivity with computers through larger monitors and was recently honored at SigCHI, the premier international society for professionals, academics and students who are interested in human-technology and human-computer interaction (HCI).
 Dan Olsen, Building Interactive Systems: Principles for Human-Computer Interaction, 1st Ed. (Course Technology Cengage Learning, 2009).
 HCI is research concerned about the human component of computers.
 T. Simmons, “What’s the Optimum Computer Display Size?,” Ergonomics in Design, 9, no. 4 (2001): 19–25; 14; M. Ziefle, “Effects of Display Resolution on Visual Performance,” Human Factors, 40 (4), 554-568.
 R. Ball and C. North, “An Analysis of User Behavior on High-Resolution Tiled Displays,” in Tenth IFIP International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, (2005): 350-364; R. Ball, M. Varghese, A. Sabri, E. Cox, C. Fierer, M. Peterson, B. Carstensen, and C. North, “Evaluating the Benefits of Tiled Displays for Navigating Maps,” in IASTED International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, (2005): 66-71.
 R. Ball and C. North.
 G. Robertson, M. Czerwinski, P. Baudisch, B. Meyers, D. Robbins, G. Smith, and D. Tan, “The Large-Display User Experience,” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 25, no. 4 (2005): 44–51.
 A. Sabri, R. Ball, S. Bhatia, A. Fabian, and C. North, “High-Resolution Gaming: Interfaces, Notifications, and the User Experience,” Interacting with Computers Journal, 19, no. 2 (March 2007): 151–166.
 D. Brujin, S. Mul, and H. Oostendorp, “The Influence of Screen Size and Text Layout on the Study of Text,” Behaviour & Information Technology, 11, no. 2 (1991): 71–78.
 Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, (Doubleday Business, 1990).
 R. Ball, M. Varghese, A. Sabri, E. Cox, C. Fierer, M. Peterson, B. Carstensen, and C. North.
 M. Czerwinski, G. Smith, T. Regan, B. Meyers, G. Robertson, and G. Starkweather, “Toward Characterizing the Productivity Benefits of Very Large Displays.” in Proceedings of Interact Conference (2003).
 In general, women have been shown to perform worse than men in 3D navigation, but with wider displays this trend appears to diminish. See M. Czerwinski, D. Tan, and G. Robertson, “Women Take a Wider View,” in Proceedings of CHI: ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2002): 195-201.
 G. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven—Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” The Psychological Review, 63, no. 2 (March 1956).
 Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, (Center for the Study of Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency, 1999).
 D. Tan, J. Stefanucci, D. Proffitt, and R. Pausch, “The Infocockpit: Providing Location and Place to Aid Human Memory,”in Proceedings of PUI (Perceptual/Perceptive User Interfaces) (2001): 1-4.
 R. Ball and C. North.