Multi-screen mania: how our devices work together

The reality of our multi-screen world is that consumers are increasingly turning to different devices throughout the day to accomplish tasks. A user might rely on a smartphone to dash off a quick text message or to scan a product in store, then use a tablet to plan trips at home and then turn to a PC to do more heavy research.

But we’re not just tackling discrete jobs with each device. We’re spreading out tasks between devices, starting something on one screen and then completing the task on another machine. That’s the conclusion of new research from Google (s goog), which set out to understand how we’re using our network of devices. And that has implications for publishers and marketers, who are trying to understand how to stay in front of consumers as they use more devices.

Google teamed with Sterling Brands and Ipsos and studied the media habits of 1,611 people across the country in the second quarter of this year.

Working between devices

It turns out that 90 percent of people move between devices to accomplish a task, with virtually all of those people completing their task in one day. The most popular starting point is the smartphone, which is used to gather information, shop online and engage in social networking. In most cases, the tasks are continued on a PC though tablets are also becoming a popular option for continuing social networking and watching videos. Shopping, for example, is a popular task, with 67 percent of respondents moving from screen to screen to complete a purchase.

PCs are becoming the workhorse for more complex duties such as planning a trip and managing finances. About 30 percent of those tasks are carried over to smartphones. Tablets have much less penetration but they are most used to conduct trip planning, online shopping and video viewing with carryover usually extending to a PC. Search is often the link for many tasks, helping users pick up where they left off.

Pivoting between screens

It’s not just sequential use, consumers are also spending a lot of time using devices at the same time. For example, 77 percent of the time when consumers are watching TV, they’re also on another device. The most popular screen combination is the TV and smartphone (81 percent), followed by smartphone/PC and PC/TV (both 66 percent). More than three quarters (78 percent) of simultaneous use is multi-tasking, or tackling two different jobs at the same time such as watching TV while emailing. But 22 percent is complementary use, in which a user begins a task based on what they’re seeing on another screen, for instance looking up an ad or an actor seen on TV.

The smartphone is becoming the go-to device for a lot of tasks because it’s often the most readily available device. But it’s also prompting a lot of new tasks that aren’t planned. Google found that 80 percent of smartphone searches were spontaneous, meaning people began a job based on something they encountered or remembered. That’s very different from PCs, where half of the tasks are planned.

How to capitalize on the multi-screen usage

Jason Spero, Google’s head of Global Mobile Sales & Strategy, said the implications for publishers and marketers is that they need to build their strategies around this multi-screen reality. They need to be everywhere that their customers are and they should present a consistent experience between platforms. If they can, they should consider ways to follow users as they move between devices so they can maintain a seamless experience.

“You have to be there when the customer is looking for you and the customer is looking in a new combination of ways,” Spero said. “There are a series of starting points all along the way and if they have a crummy experience somewhere, then you’re not in consideration.”

Of course, this is largely beneficial to Google, which has been pushing advertisers and publishers to gear up for mobile and has been trying to get a TV platform off the ground. And the insights on how search connects multi-screen usage also boosts the importance of Google’s core product.

But the results are still interesting in painting a picture about how intertwined our device usage is. This may be obvious to some but people these days are really using them all in concert, turning to certain devices when it’s more convenient or more helpful for a specific task. This may present a challenge for marketers and publishers, who have to contend with more screens. But it’s an opportunity as well for companies that understand how to hold on to a user’s attention as it increasingly zips back and forth between devices.

We’ll be talking about smartphones and tablets at GigaOM’s Mobilize Conference on Sept. 20-21.