Ordered and Quantum Treemaps:
Making Effective Use of 2D Space to Display Hierarchies

Benjamin B. Bederson

Department of Computer Science

Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory

Insitute for Advanced Computer Studies

3171 A.V. Williams Building

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742

+1 301 405 2764



Ben Shneiderman

Department of Computer Science

Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory

Insitute for Advanced Computer Studies

Institute for Systems Research

University of Maryland



Martin Wattenberg

Dow Jones / SmartMoney.com




Treemaps, a space-filling method of visualizing large hierarchical data sets, are receiving increasing attention. Several algorithms have been proposed to create more useful displays by controlling the aspect ratios of the rectangles that make up a treemap. While these algorithms do improve visibility of small items in a single layout, they introduce instability over time in the display of dynamically changing data, fail to preserve order of the underlying data, and create layouts that are difficult to visually search. In addition, continuous treemap algorithms are not suitable for displaying quantum-sized objects within them, such as images.

This paper introduces several new treemap algorithms, which address these shortcomings. In addition, we show a new application of these treemaps, using them to present groups of images. The ordered treemap algorithms ensure that items near each other in the given order will be near each other in the treemap layout. Using experimental evidence from Monte Carlo trials, we show that compared to other layout algorithms ordered treemaps are more stable while maintaining relatively favorable aspect ratios of the constituent rectangles. A second test set uses stock market data. The quantum treemap algorithms modify the layout of the continuous treemap algorithms to generate rectangles that are integral multiples of an input object size. The quantum treemap algorithm has been applied to PhotoMesa, an application that supports browsing of large numbers of images.


Hierarchies, Image Browsers, Information Visualization, Jazz, Ordered treemaps, Treemaps, Trees, Zoomable User Interfaces (ZUIs).


Treemaps are a space-filling visualization method capable of representing large hierarchical collections of quantitative data [9]. A treemap (Figure 1) works by dividing the display area into a nested sequence of rectangles whose areas correspond to an attribute of the data set, effectively combining aspects of a Venn diagram and a pie chart. Originally designed to visualize files on a hard drive, treemaps have been applied to a wide variety of domains ranging from financial analysis [7, 13]to sports reporting [5].

A key ingredient of a treemap is the algorithm used to create the nested rectangles that make up the map. (We refer to this set of rectangles as the layout of the treemap.) The slice-and-dice algorithm of the original treemap paper [9] uses parallel lines to divide a rectangle representing an item into smaller rectangles representing its children. At each level of hierarchy the orientation of the lines - vertical or horizontal - is switched. Though simple to implement, the slice-and-dice layout often creates layouts that contain many rectangles with a high aspect ratio. (In this paper we define the aspect ratio of a rectangle to mean the maximum of width/height and height/width. Using this definition, the lower the aspect ratio of a rectangle, the more nearly square it is; a square has an aspect ratio of 1, which is the lowest possible value.) Such long skinny rectangles can be hard to see, select, compare in size, and label [3, 11]

Figure 1: A slice-and-dice layout. Shading indicates order, which is preserved.

Several alternative layout algorithms have recently been proposed to address these concerns. The SmartMoney Map of the Market [13] is an example of the cluster treemap method described in [14] which uses a simple recursive algorithm that reduces overall aspect ratios. Bruls, Huizing, and van Wijk [3] introduced the squarified treemap, which uses a different algorithm to achieve the same goal. Figure 2 shows examples of these two layouts.

Figure 2: Low aspect ratio layouts. Shading indicates order, which is not preserved.

These methods suffer from three drawbacks. First, changes in the data set can cause dramatic discontinuous changes in the layouts produced by both cluster treemaps and squarified treemaps. (By contrast, the output of the slice and dice algorithm varies continuously with the input data.) These abrupt layout changes are readily apparent to the eye; below we also describe quantitative measurements of the phenomenon. Large layout changes are undesirable for several reasons. If the treemap data is updated on a second-by-second basis (e.g., in a stock portfolio monitor) then frequent layout changes make it hard to track or select an individual item. Rapid layout changes also cause an unattractive flickering that draws attention away from other aspects of the visualization. Moreover, even occasional abrupt changes mean that it is hard to find items on the treemap by memory, decreasing efficacy for long-term users.

The second shortcoming of cluster and squarified treemap layouts is that many data sets contain ordering information that is helpful for seeing patterns or for locating particular objects in the map. For instance, the bond data described in [6] is naturally ordered by date of maturity and interest rate. In many other cases the given order is alphabetical. The original slice-and-dice layout preserves the given ordering of the data, but cluster treemaps and squarified treemaps do not. Another recent algorithm [12] enables control over the aspect ratios but does not guarantee order. For someone to look for a particular item (assuming they are labeled), their eye has to switch between horizontal and vertical scans many times, increasing cognitive load. A layout that has a consistent visual pattern would be easier to search. We propose a measure, which we call readability, that quantifies how easy it is to visually scan a treemap layout, and use it to demonstrate the benefit of ordered layouts.

Another issue with treemap algorithms is what information is displayed in the generated rectangles. In every current usage of treemaps to date, they are used to visualize a two-dimensional dataset where typically, one dimension is mapped to the area of the rectangles (as computed by the treemap algorithm), and the other dimension is mapped to the color of the rectangle. Then, a label is placed in the rectangles which are large enough to accommodate them, and the user can interact with the treemap to get more information about the objects depicted by the rectangles. Surprisingly enough, there are not any published uses of treemaps where other information is placed in the rectangles. We are interested in using treemaps to display large numbers of image thumbnails, clustered by metadata.

There is a good reason why treemaps have not been used in this manner before. This is because while treemaps guarantee that the area of each generated rectangle is proportional to an input number, they do not make any promise about the aspect ratio of the rectangles. Some treemap algorithms (such as squarified treemaps) do generate rectangles with better aspect ratios, but the specific aspect ratio is not guaranteed. While this is fine for general purpose visualizations, it is not appropriate for laying out images because images have fixed aspect ratios, and they do not fit well in rectangles with inappropriate aspect ratios.

In this paper, we introduce several new ordered treemap algorithms which address the three limitations of existing treemap algorithms, and we also introduce a new family of quantum treemap algorithms which address the use of treemaps to present fixed-size objects such as images.[1]

The ordered treemap algorithms change relatively smoothly under dynamic updates and roughly preserve order, but also produce rectangles with low aspect ratios. One of them presents rectangles in a predictable visually ordered style that should make human searching faster. We discuss variations of the ordered treemap algorithms, each with slightly different properties.

We then report the results of Monte Carlo experiments comparing the ordered treemap algorithms to squarified treemaps, cluster treemaps, and the slice-and-dice algorithm, using natural metrics for smoothness of updates, overall aspect ratio, and readability. The results suggest that ordered treemaps steer a middle ground, producing layouts with aspect ratios that are far lower than slice-and-dice layouts, though not quite as low as cluster or squarified treemaps; they update significantly more smoothly than clustered or squarified treemaps, though not as smoothly as slice-and-dice layouts; one of the ordered treemaps offers layouts almost as readable as slice-and-dice, which is significantly better than all of the others. Thus ordered treemaps may be a good choice in situations where readability, usability and smooth updating all are important concerns.

The quantum treemap algorithms are a family of treemap algorithms that extend the regular continuous layout of other algorithms to generate rectangles whose sizes are multiples of a single input dimension. This is useful for laying out images or other fixed-size objects (standard photos (e.g. 4 by 6 inches) or document pages (e.g. 8.5 by 11 inches)) in the treemap rectangles. We have used quantum treemaps to create a novel photo browser that shows many thumbnails of images, clustered by metadata (where each cluster appears visually within a treemap-generated rectangle). This application, called PhotoMesa, uses a zoomable user interface to enable simple interactions to quickly find the desired photos, while offering the user control over the trade-off between number and resolution of photos presented on the screen.[2]

The Basic Ordered Treemap Algorithm

The key insight that leads to algorithms for ordered treemaps is that it is possible to create a layout in which items that are next to each other in the given order are adjacent in the treemap. Although such a layout does not follow the simple linear order of the slice-and-dice layout, it provides useful cues for locating objects and turns out to provide constraints on the layout that discourage large discontinuous changes with dynamic data.

We first discuss an algorithm for creating layouts that approximately preserves order. It follows a simple recursive process, inspired in part by the idea of finding a two-dimensional analogue of the well-known QuickSort algorithm.

The inputs are a rectangle R to be subdivided and a list of items that are ordered by an index and have given areas. The first step is to choose a special item, the pivot, which is placed at the side of R. In the second step, the remaining items in the list are assigned to three large rectangles that make up the rest of the display area. Finally, the algorithm is then applied recursively to each of these rectangles.

The algorithm has some minor variations, depending on how the pivot is chosen. We present three pivot-selection strategies, but first explain the algorithm choosing the pivot with the largest area. The motivation for this choice is that the largest item will be the most difficult to place, so it should be done first. The algorithm, as illustrated in Fig. 3, can be described as follows:

Figure 3: The pivot configuration.

1.      If the number of items is <= 4, lay them out in either a pivot, quad, or snake layout as described in the next section, and pick the layout whose average aspect ratio is closest to 1. Stop.

2.      Let P, the pivot, be the item with the largest area in the list of items.

3.      If the width of R is greater than or equal to the height, divide R into four rectangles, R1, RP, R2, and R3 as shown in Fig. 2. (If the height is greater than the width, use the same basic arrangement but flipped along the line y=x.)

4.      Put P in the rectangle RP, whose exact dimensions and position will be determined in Step 5.

5.      Divide the items in the list, other than P, into three lists, L1, L2, and L3, to be laid out in R1, R2, and R3. L1, L2 and L3 all may be empty lists. (Note that the contents of these three lists completely determine the placement of the rectangles in Figure 3.) Let L1 consist of all items whose index is less than P in the ordering. Let L2 and L3 be such that all items in L2 have an index less than those in L3, and the aspect ratio of RP is as close to 1 as possible.

6.      Recursively lay out L1, L2, and L3 (if any are non-empty) in R1, R2, and R3 according to this algorithm by starting at step 1.

The alternate approaches to pivot selection are pivot-by-middle and pivot-by-split-size. Pivot-by-middle selects the pivot to be the middle item of the list that is, if the list has n items, the pivot is item number n/2, rounded down. The motivation behind this choice is that it is likely to create a balanced layout. In addition, because the choice of pivot does not depend on the size of the items, the layouts created by this algorithm may not be as sensitive to changes in the data as pivot by size.

Pivot-by-split-size selects the pivot that will split the list into approximately equal total areas. With the sublists containing a similar area, we expect to get a balanced layout, even when the items in one part of the list are a substantially different size than items in the other part of the list. Figure 4 shows examples of the layouts created by these variations.

Figure 4: Pivot layouts. Shading indicates order, which is roughly preserved. The "P" indicates the first pivot rectangle in each layout.

All pivot selection variations have the property that they create layouts that roughly preserve the ordering of the index of the items, which will fall in a left-to-right and top-to-bottom direction in the layout. The two algorithms are also reasonably efficient: pivot-by-size has performance characteristics similar to QuickSort (order n log n average case and n2 worst case) while pivot-by-middle has order nlog n performance in the worst case.

Although the two algorithms produce layouts with relatively low aspect ratios (as described in the following sections) they are not optimal in this regard. The stipulations in step 5 of the algorithm avoid some but not all degenerate layouts with high aspect ratios, so we experimented with post-processing strategies designed to improve the layout aspect ratio. For example we tried adding a last step to the algorithm in which any rectangle that is divided by a segment parallel to its longest side is changed so that it is divided by a segment parallel to its shortest side. Because this step gave only a small improvement in layout aspect ratio while dramatically decreasing layout stability, we did not include it in the final algorithm.

Stopping Conditions

Considering a few cases for laying out a small number of items can produce substantially better total results when applied to the stopping condition of the ordered treemap algorithm.

The improvement comes from the realization that the layout of rectangles does not necessarily give layouts with the best aspect ratios for all sets of 4 rectangles. In addition, it generates a layout that is somewhat difficult to parse visually because the eye has to move in 3 directions to focus on the 4 rectangles (horizontally from R1 to RP, vertically from RP to R2, and then horizontally from R2 to R3).

The layout and visual readability can be improved by offering two alternative layouts to the default pivot layout. The first alternative produces a quad of (2x2) rectangles. The second produces a snake layout with all 4 rectangles layed out sequentially either horizontally or vertically. The snake layout can be equally well applied to 2, 3, or more rectangles. Figure 5 shows the result of laying out a sequence of 4 rectangles using the three stopping conditions.

Since no single layout strategy always gives the best result for all input data, the ordered treemap algorithm computes layouts using all strategies at the stopping condition (pivot, quad, and snake) and picks the best one. In practice, this strategy produces layouts with substantially squarer aspect ratios. Running 100 randomized tests with 100 rectangles, and random area per rectangle, ranging from 10 to 1000 produced an average aspect ratio of 3.9 with the original stopping conditions, and 2.7 for the new stopping conditions.

Figure 5: Result of applying different stopping conditions to same set of 4 rectangles

The Strip Treemap Algorithm

An alternative and simpler strategy gives surprisingly good results. The strip treemap algorithm is a modification of the existing Squarified Treemap algorithm [3]. It works by processing input rectangles in order, and laying them out in horizontal (or vertical) strips of varying thicknesses (Figure 6). It is efficient in that it only looks at rectangles within the strip currently being processed and produces a layout with significantly better readability than the basic ordered treemap algorithm, and comparable aspect ratios and stability.

Figure 6: Strip treemap algorithm applied to 20 rectangles.

As with all treemap algorithms, the inputs are a rectangle R to be subdivided and a list of items that are ordered by an index and have given areas. We describe here the algorithm for a horizontal layout, but it can easily be altered to produce vertically strips. We maintain a current strip, and then for each rectangle, we check if adding the rectangle to the current strip will increase or decrease the average aspect ratio of all the rectangles in the strip. If the average aspect ratio decreases (or stays the same), the new rectangle is added. If it increases, a new strip is started with the rectangle.

Note that the layout of any set of rectangles in a strip is deterministic. We calculate the area of the set of rectangles, and from that and the width of the layout box, we compute the height of the strip. Then given the height of the strip, we calculate the width of each rectangle so that it has the appropriate area. The algorithm is as follows:

  1. Scale the area of all the rectangles so that the total area of the input rectangles equals that of the layout rectangle.
  2. Create a new empty strip, the current strip.
  3. Add the next rectangle to the current strip, recomputing the height of the strip based on the area of all the rectangles within the strip, and then recomputing the width of each rectangle.
  4. If the average aspect ratio of the current strip has increased as a result of adding the rectangle in step 3, remove the rectangle pushing it back onto the list of rectangles to process and go to step 2.
  5. If all the rectangles have been processed, stop. Else, go to step 3.

The strip treemap complexity is understood as follows. For each rectangle, the algorithm computes the average aspect ratio of the current strip. Each strip will be, on average, of length equal to the square root of the total number of rectangles. Thus, the strip treemap algorithm runs in O(sqrt(n)) time on average

As mentioned, this algorithm is similar to the squarified treemap algorithm [3], but the squarified treemap algorithm is more complex in two ways. Firstly, it sorts the input rectangles by size which results in better aspect ratios, but (of course) loses the natural order of the rectangles. Secondly, rather than creating all the strips horizontally, it creates either horizontal or vertical strips in the remaining available space so as to produce the best aspect ratio. So really, strip treemaps are a simplification of squarified treemaps but a very important simplification as it results in ordered layouts with aspect ratios that are only slightly worse.

The strip treemap algorithm also has some similarity to the space-filling treemap algorithm by Eick et. al. [1]. They designed a strip layout algorithm that does maintain order. But, instead of optimizing aspect ratios, they maintained near-constant strip heights to improve the ability of people to compare the areas of each rectangle. Their algorithm works by deciding in advance the number of strips, and then calculating the strip heights to be of constant height and laying the rectangles out within those strips. Since the goal of their layout was to produce rectangles that are easily comparable, they avoid splitting rectangles across strips (which could be necessary since the strip heights are calculated independent of their content). They adjust the strip heights to accommodate moving the rectangles to one row or the other when they would otherwise be split across strips.

Look Ahead for Strip Treemaps

The strip treemap algorithm as defined above works well, but frequently has a problem in laying out the last strip. Since the decision to add a rectangle to a strip is made based only on the aspect ratio of the strip being added to, it is possible to be stuck with a few left over rectangles that get placed in a long skinny final strip.

This can be solved in a general way by adding lookahead to the layout. After a strip is constructed with the approach described previously, the next strip is layed out to decide if any rectangles would be better off moved from it to the current strip. The lookahead works as follows.

The combined aspect ratio of the rectangles in the current strip and the aspect ratio of the lookahead strip is compared to what would happen if the rectangles from the lookahead strip were moved to the current strip. If the average aspect ratio is lower when moved to the current strip, they are moved.

Adding lookahead to the strip treemap algorithm eliminates the final skinny strips that otherwise can significantly increase the total average aspect ratio. Adding the lookahead function does not change the complexity of the algorithm since you never have to process more than one other strip which will have, on average, sqrt(n) rectangles. However, it clearly increases the runtime of any implementation by at least a factor of 2

Metrics: Aspect Ratio, Change and Readability

In order to compare treemap algorithms we define three measures: 1) the average aspect ratio of a treemap layout; 2) a layout distance change function which quantifies how much rectangles move as data is updated; and 3) a readability function which is a measure of how easy it is to visually scan a layout to find a particular item. The ideal would be to have a low average aspect ratio, a low distance change as data is updated, and a high readability, though our experiments suggest that there may be no treemap algorithm that is optimal by all three measures

We define the average aspect ratio of a treemap layout as the unweighted arithmetic average of the aspect ratios of all leaf-node rectangles, thus the lowest average aspect ratio would be 1.0 which would mean that all the rectangles were perfect squares. This is a natural measure, although certainly not the only possibility. One alternative would be a weighted average that places greater emphasis on larger items, since they contribute more to the overall visual impression. We choose an unweighted average since the chief problems with high aspect ratio rectanglespoor visibility and awkward labelingare at least as acute for small rectangles as large ones.

The layout distance change function is a metric on the space of treemap layouts that allows us to measure how much two layouts differ, and thus how quickly or slowly the layout produced by a given algorithm changes in response to changes in the data. To define the distance change function, we begin by defining a simple metric on the space of rectangles. Let a rectangle R be defined by a 4-tuple (x,y,w,h) where x and y are the coordinates of the upper left corner and w and h are its width and height. We use the Euclidean metric on this space, i.e. if rectangles R1 and R2 are given by (x1, y1, w1, h1) and (x2, y2, w2, h2) respectively, then the distance between R1 and R2 is given by


We use this metric since it takes into account the visual importance of the shape of a rectangle. A change of 0 would mean that no rectangles moved at all, and the more the rectangles are changed, the higher this metric will be. There are several plausible alternatives to this definition. Two other natural metrics are the Hausdorff metric for compact sets in the plane or a Euclidean metric based on the coordinates of the lower right corner instead of height and width. These metrics differ from the one we chose by a small bounded factor, and hence would not lead to significantly different results.

We then define the layout distance change function as the average distance between each pair of corresponding rectangles in the layouts. We use an unweighted average for the same reasons as we use an unweighted average for aspect ratios.

Finally, the readability metric assigns a numeric value to how easily it is likely to be for a person to scan a layout to find a particular item. Scanning heavily relies on an ordered layout since otherwise the entire layout would have to be scanned to find a particular item. We believe that this kind of readability is correlated with the consistency and predictability of a layout. Consistency allows the eye to follow a pattern quickly without having to jump. Predictability allows the eye to jump ahead to the region the user thinks an item will appear.

We base our readability measure on the number of times that the motion of the reader's eye changes direction as the treemap layout is scanned in order. To be precise, we consider the sequence of vectors needed to move along the centers of the layout rectangles in order, and count the number of angle changes between successive vectors that are greater than .1 radians (about 6 degrees). To normalize the measure, we divide this count by the total number of rectangles and then subtract from 1. The resulting figure is equal to 1.0 in the most readable case, such as a slice-and-dice layout, and close to zero for a layout in which the order has been shuffled. For a hierarchical layout, we use an average of the readability of the leaf-node layouts, weighted by the number of nodes each contains.

We considered other measures such as counting the average angular difference between rectangles, but decided that once a rectangle sequence changed direction at all, it would force the eye to stop and the amount it had to change direction was not as important as the fact that it changed at all. Since the readability metric given above seems more subjective than the metrics for layout change and aspect ratio, we also performed a user study to validate it.

Experimental design and results

To evaluate the performance of ordered treemap layout algorithms, we compared them to squarified, cluster and slice-and-dice layouts with two experiments, and ran a user study. The first experiment consisted of a sequence of Monte Carlo trials to simulate continuously updating data. Our goal was to measure the average aspect ratio, average layout distance change, and readability produced by each of the algorithms. In the second experiment we measured the average aspect ratio and readability produced by each of the algorithms for a static set of stock market data. Finally, the user study validated the readability metric by having users search for items in different treemap layouts.

Monte Carlo trials

We simulated the performance of the seven layout algorithms under a variety of conditions (slice and dice treemaps, basic ordered treemaps with all three pivot selection strategies, strip treemaps, clustered treemaps, and squarified treemaps). We performed experiments on three types of hierarchies. The first hierarchy (20x1) was a collection of 20 items with one level of hierarchy. The second ("100x1") was a collection of 100 items with one level of hierarchy. The third (8x3) was a balanced tree with three levels of hierarchy and eight items at each level for a total of 512 items.

For each experiment we ran 100 trials of 100 steps each. In each experiment we began with data drawn from a log-normal distribution created by exponentiating a normal distribution with mean 0 and variance 1. This distribution is common in naturally occurring positive-valued data [8]. (Another common distribution, the Zipf distribution, has produced similar results in similar experiments [10].) In each step of a trial the data was modified by multiplying each data item by a random variable ex, where x was drawn from a normal distribution with variance 0.05 and mean 0, thus creating a log-normal random walk. All layouts were created for a square with side 100. The results are shown in tables 1 through 3.



Aspect Ratio































Table 1: 20x1, Log-normal initial distribution.




Aspect Ratio































Table 2: 100x1, Log-normal initial distribution.






Aspect Ratio































Table 3: 8x3, Log-normal initial distribution.


The results strongly suggest a tradeoff between low aspect ratios and smooth updates. As expected, the slice-and-dice method produces layouts with high aspect ratios, but which change very little as the data changes. The squarified and cluster treemaps are at the opposite end of the spectrum, with low aspect ratios and large changes in layouts. The ordered and strip treemaps fall in the middle of the spectrum. None produces the lowest aspect ratios, but they are a clear improvement over the slice-and-dice method, with the pivot-by-split-size and strip treemap algorithms producing slightly better aspect ratios. At the same time, they update more smoothly than cluster or squarified treemaps, with the pivot-by-middle algorithm having a slight advantage over the other pivot selection strategies, and the strip treemap doing especially well in the 8x3 case. Aside from the slice-and-dice layouts, strip treemap layouts are by far the most readable in all cases.

Static stock market data

Our second set of experiments consisted of applying each of the seven algorithms to a set of 535 publicly traded companies used in the SmartMoney Map of the Market [13] with market capitalization as the size attribute. For each algorithm we measured the aspect ratio of the layout it produced. The results are shown in the first column of Table 4, and the layouts produced are shown in Figures 14-20 at the end of this paper. (The gray scale indicates ordering within each industry group that is the last level of hierarchy in this data set.) Note that although aspect ratios are higher than in the statistical trials, partly due to outliers in the data set, the broad pattern of results is similar.


Aspect Ratio























Table 4: Stock market data for 535 companies.

User Study of Layout Readability

To validate the readability metric, we performed a user study to see how long it actually took users to find specific rectangles layed out by different treemap algorithms. We compared the squarified, basic ordered, and strip treemap algorithms by having subjects identify a specific rectangle by clicking on the rectangle with the requested numerical ID. Each algorithm was applied to 100 rectangles with random sizes from a uniform distribution. Each subject did 10 tasks for each of the three algorithms. Each task consisted of a new random treemap where each rectangle contained the number of that rectangle as specified in the input order to the algorithm (Figure 7).

The study was run with a completely automated java application. The subjects were first asked some demographic information. Then they were given training tasks followed by the experimental tasks where the subjects were instructed to click on the rectangle containing the target number at the bottom of the window. As the subject moved the mouse around, the rectangle under the mouse was highlighted. The study was concluded with each subject rating the three algorithms. So, there was a single independent variable (the treemap algorithm), and two dependent variables (time and subjective preference).

Figure 7: Screen snapshot from the user study showing what users were presented with when told to click on a specific rectangle. In this case, a basic ordered treemap was used and the user was told to click on rectangle #43.

We ran this experiment with 20 subjects. The subjects were 20% female and 80% male. They were 55% aged 30-39 and 45% aged 20-29. 50% were students. 95% reported using a computer 20 or more hours per week while 5% reported using a computer 10-19 hours per week. The subjects reported their primary major or field as being computer science (65%), HCI (15%), informatics (5%), quality assurance (5%), marketing (5%), or unspecified (5%).

We analyzed the results of the experiment by running a single factor ANOVA for the two dependent variables. The measured time (F2,57 = 92.3) p < 0.0001 and subjective preference (F2,57 = 85.6) p < 0.0001 each had significant differences, so we performed a post-hoc analysis using Tukey HSD. For the measured time, there was a significant difference between the squarified treemap algorithm and the other two, but not between the basic ordered and strip treemap algorithms. For subjective preference, there was a significant difference between all three algorithms. Figure 8 shows the numeric results from the experiment.

Figure 8: Results from user study validating readability metric. Error bars show standard deviation, and the algorithms marked with an * are statistically different than the others.

The user study results do validate the readability metric. While the time measurement for the strip and basic ordered treemap were not significantly different, the trend was in the same direction as the readability metric (strip faster than basic ordered which is faster than squarified), and the difference between the three algorithms for subjective preference was significant, and in the same direction as the readability metric.

Algorithms for Quantum Treemaps

As mentioned in the introduction, we are also interested in using treemaps to present clusters of visual information, such as images (Figure 9). We would like to be able to lay out images within each rectangle generated by a treemap algorithm. That would enable us to create applications that allow users to see an overview of a large set of information, but grouped in some meaningful way. Some research in human-computer interaction shows that this kind of grouping of search results based on meaningful categories, for instance, can help users understand those search results [4].

Figure 9: PhotoMesa using quantum strip treemaps to group 556 images in 17 directories

Let us look at the problem of applying existing treemap algorithms to laying out fixed size objects, such as images. For now, let us assume without loss of generality that the images are all square (i.e., having an aspect ratio of 1). We will see later that this does not affect layout issues. Given a list of groups of images that we want to lay out, the obvious input to the treemap algorithm is the number of images in each group. The treemap algorithm will generate a list of rectangles, and then we just have to decide how to fit each group of images in the corresponding rectangle.

For each rectangle and group of images, the first step is to decide on the dimensions of a grid with which to lay out the images in the rectangle. Given the aspect ratio of the rectangle, we compute the number of rows and columns that best fit the images.

The resulting grid may have more spots than there are images, but will not have too many rows or columns. This layout, however, is not guaranteed to fit in the rectangle. For example, consider a rectangle that was computed to hold a single image. It will have an area of 1.0, but could be long and skinny, perhaps with a width of 10.0 and a height of 0.1. The obvious solution is to scale down the images just enough to fit in the bounds of the rectangle.

Herein lies the problem. Since each group of images has to fit in to a separate rectangle, each group of images will have to potentially be scaled down. This will result in each group of images being a different size. Furthermore, since the rectangles are arbitrarily sized and positioned, and the images are scaled, the resulting groups of images will not align with each other in a visually attractive way.

It is standard graphic design practice to align content in a way that makes it easy for the eye to quickly scan different areas. If each group of images is a different size and they are not aligned, this will make the resulting layout less attractive, and may make it slower for a user to quickly scan. Figure 10 shows the result of laying out a simple sequence of images using the basic ordered treemap and the quantum treemap algorithm we are about to describe to see the difference in overall layout. Note how with the ordered treemap, group #4 consists of a single image and is scaled much smaller than the other images. With the quantum treemap algorithm, all images are the same size, and all images are aligned on a single grid across all the groups. We have written an application called PhotoMesa, an image browser, which makes use of quantum treemaps to layout groups of images. Figures 9 and 11 show screen snapshots of PhotoMesa which may help to illuminate our interest in this kind of algorithm.

We designed PhotoMesa to support browsing of personal digital photos in a family environment. Using metadata from the operating system (directory location, file change dates, and filenames), PhotoMesa groups the photos and lays out the groups using the quantum strip treemap algorithm. PhotoMesa uses a Zoomable User Interface (ZUI) to interact with the photos. Moving the mouse highlights a region of photos, and clicking results in the view smoothly zooming into the highlighted region. Right-clicking zooms out. In this way, users can easily get an overview of 1,000 photos at a time or more, and quickly zoom into photos of interest. Furthermore, this kind of interaction naturally supports serendipitous photo finding. Since so many photos are visible, users are likely to come across other photos of interest while looking for a specific one.

The goal of the quantum treemap algorithm is similar to other treemap algorithms, but instead of generating rectangles of arbitrary aspect ratios, it generates rectangles with widths and heights that are integer multiples of a given elemental size. In this manner, it always generates rectangles in which a grid of elements of the same size can be layed out. Furthermore, all the grids of elements will align perfectly with rows and columns of elements running across the entire series of rectangles. It is this basic element size that can not be made any smaller that led to the name of quantum treemaps.

Any treemap algorithm can be quantized, so really quantum treemaps (QTs) are a family of algorithms that parallel the other treemap algorithms. QTs input and output are similar to those of other treemap algorithms, but instead of taking a list of areas as input, it takes an elemental object dimension, and a list of numbers of objects. The output is a sequence of rectangles where each rectangle is large enough (and possibly larger) to contain a grid of the number of objects requested. The basic idea is to start the regular treemap algorithm and then as rectangles are generated, they are quantized. That is, their dimensions are expanded or shrunk so that each dimension is an integral multiple of the input element size and the total area of the rectangle is no less than that needed to layout a grid of the requested number of objects.

An unusual property of QTs is that the area of the generated rectangles is typically larger than the object size multiplied by the number of objects to be layed out within that rectangle. The reason for this is that many layouts will not precisely fill up a grid, but will leave some empty cells in the last row. This is obviously true for numbers of objects that are prime (since they have no divisors), but is also true for non-prime numbers where their factors do not generate rectangles that have aspect ratios close to the aspect ratio of the rectangle generated by the treemap algorithm.

While a generic quantization program could be written that would apply to the result of any treemap algorithm, we instead have written custom quantum treemap variations of each ordered treemap algorithm. This is because the custom ones are more efficient (in the amount of wasted space) since the ongoing treemap algorithm can adapt to the error that is generated by quantized rectangles.

We describe here a quantized (Q) version of strip treemaps (ST) and then summarize the issues that affect quantization of other algorithms. The primary difference is in step 3 where the rectangle dimensions are computed for the current strip. Instead of computing dimensions to exactly match the requested area of each rectangle, the dimensions must be computed to be integral multiples of the elemental input object size. With the original ST, the height of the strip is calculated with (total-area-of-rectangles-in-strip / width-of-layout-box). But with QST the height is calculated by taking the height as calculated by ST, and increasing it to the next highest multiple of the input object height. Similarly, the width of each rectangle is grown or shrunk to the next multiple of the input object width. It is shrunk if the resulting rectangle dimensions would be large enough to accommodate the number of requested objects otherwise, it is grown as needed.

After this change, there is a remaining problem which is that the resulting treemap will have a ragged right edge since some of the rectangles will have grown in width more than others, and there can be differing numbers of rectangles on each row. Thus, there needs to be a concluding evening step that evens out the ragged right edge. The simplest way to do this is to add enough space to the width of the right-most rectangle in each strip so that the resulting width of the total strip matches the width of the largest strip.

This simple approach to evening can result in some rectangles being expanded significantly with the result that there will be a significant amount of empty space when the objects are laid out in those rectangles. A simple solution is to distribute the extra space through all the rectangles in the strip.

Quantizing a treemap algorithm does not change the complexity of the algorithm since it only adds a constant cost to the processing of each rectangle. Quantizing other treemap algorithms involves similar changes as to the ones we made to strip treemap, but the changes can sometimes be a bit more subtle since the layouts are not as straightforward as they are for the strip layout. We now look at a few issues that apply to quantization of any treemap algorithm.

Element Aspect Ratio Issues

QTs assume that all elements that will be layed out in the rectangles produced by QT are the same aspect ratio, and that aspect ratio is an input parameter to QT. It turns out, however, that it is not necessary to modify the internal structure of QT to accommodate the elements aspect ratio. Instead, the dimensions of the starting box can simply be stretched by the inverse of the element aspect ratio. Simply put, laying out wide objects in a wide box is the same as laying out thin objects in a thin box. Figure 11 shows ten articles from the ACM Interactions magazine, each with a different aspect ratio.

Figure 11: PhotoMesa using strip treemaps to show the contents of ACM Interactions magazine. Note the aspect ratio of the images is different than Figure 9.

Evening Ragged Edges

For QST, the job of evening the right ragged edge was straightforward since all the rectangles are organized in strips and space could be readily distributed among the rectangles in each strip. For other treemap algorithms with more complex layouts, handling ragged edges is a bit more subtle. Since the rectangles are not laid out in strips, it is harder to spread extra space among multiple rectangles. It requires working with the area as a whole, and evening the right-most and bottom-most edge.

Growing Horizontally or Vertically

In the description of QST, we always grew the height of each rectangle, and then changed the width of the rectangle as needed. However, more generally, there is a basic question of which dimension to grow each rectangle. The simple answer is just to grow in the direction that results in a rectangle that most closely matches the aspect ratio of the original rectangle. However, for certain treemap algorithms, it may make more sense to grow in one direction than another. As we saw for strip treemaps, for example, it makes most sense to have a constant height for each strip, and so we grow the height of each rectangle and the adapt the width.

We have found that for the basic ordered treemap algorithm, it produces better layouts if it always grows horizontally (or vertically for layout boxes that are oriented vertically). The issue here is somewhat subtle, but is related to the evening of the rectangles. If (looking at Figure 3), for example, rectangles in R3 are made taller, than all of R1 and R2 will have to made taller as well to match R3. If instead, the rectangles in R3 are made wider, than only the other rectangles in R3 will need to be made wider, and the rectangles in R1 and R2 can be left alone.

Quantum Treemap Analysis

One of the basic characteristics of QTs is that they work better when there are more objects per group. This is because it gives the algorithm more flexibility when computing rectangles. A rectangle of, say, 1000 elements, can be arranged in quantified grids of many different sizes such as (30x34), (31x33), (32x32) each of which use the space quite efficiently, wasting only 2% each. Rectangles containing smaller numbers of elements, however, do not offer as many options, and often use space less efficiently. For example, a rectangle containing 5 elements can be layed out in grids of (1x5), (2x3), (3x2), or (5x1). These four options do not give the algorithm as much flexibility as the dozens of grid options afforded by the larger number of elements. In addition, while the (1x5) layouts dont waste any space, the (2x3) layouts each waste 17% of the space (1 cell out of 6).

In order to assess the effectiveness of QTs, the strip treemap and ordered treemap were compared to the quantized versions of the corresponding algorithm with a series of trials using random input. Each algorithm was run 100 times generating 100 rectangles with the number of elements in each rectangle being randomly generated with a uniform distribution. This was done for 5 different ranges of the number of elements per rectangle. For each test, the average aspect ratio of all the rectangles was recorded as well as the space utilization, which was recorded as the percentage of space not used to display elements (wasted space). The same random numbers were used for each algorithm. Figures 12 and 13 show the results of these tests. Quantum treemaps did better in terms of aspect ratio, and the non-quantized treemaps did better in terms of wasted space.

However, the crucial visual advantage of QT is that it always produces layouts where elements are the same size and are aligned on a single global grid. So, while understanding the characteristics of QTs is important, for applications that need them, the importance of their quantum characteristic will typically outweigh the others.

Figure 12: Average aspect ratio of all rectangles run on both ordered treemap algorithms and their quantized counterparts with 100 rectangles with random numbers of elements per rectangle.

Figure 13: Average wasted space of all rectangles run on both ordered treemap algorithms and their quantized counterparts with 100 rectangles with random numbers of elements per rectangle.

Conclusion and future directions

Treemaps are a popular visualization method for large hierarchical data sets. Although researchers have recently created several algorithms that produce create treemap layouts with low aspect ratios, these new algorithms have three drawbacks: they are unstable under updates to the data, they scramble any natural order on the items being mapped, and they are difficult for people to search them for a specific item.

We introduced several algorithms for ordered treemaps, which alleviate these problems by creating layouts that preserve order and that update cleanly for dynamically changing data. One of the algorithms offers substantially improved readability. Experimental results show that they offer a useful compromise between the smooth updates of the slice-and-dice method and the low aspect ratios of cluster treemaps and squarified treemaps.

There are several directions for future research. First, there is doubtless room to optimize the ordered treemap algorithms discussed in this paper, especially to improve the overall aspect ratios they produce. It would also be useful to optimize the algorithms used by cluster treemaps and squarified treemaps to improve stability under dynamic updates. Another practical area to explore would be mixing different algorithms to combine their strengths: for instance, using a stable algorithm to lay out high-level nodes and an order-preserving algorithm to lay out leaf nodes might provide a useful combination of global stability and local readability. More speculatively, since experimental results suggest a tradeoff between aspect ratios and smoothness of layout changes, it would be worthwhile to look for a mathematical theorem that makes this tradeoff precise. It might also be fruitful to explore variants of treemap layouts that can update smoothly by using past layouts as a guide to current ones, or by using tiles that can have nonrectangular shapes [2].

More ambitious goals include accommodation of trees with millions of nodes. Rapid ways of aggregating data and drawing only visible features are necessary, especially to handle continuous updating. This is desirable for monitoring corporate computer networks with thousands of hard drives, stock market trading with millions of transactions, and oil production from thousands of wells and pumps.

Another challenge is to show more than two attribute values for each leaf node. Relationships might be shown by animation (e.g. blinking), connected lines, textures, sounds, or other perceptual methods.

Figure 14: Stock portfolio with slice-and-dice layout.


Figure 15: Stock portfolio with pivot-by-middle layout.


Figure 16: Stock portfolio with pivot-by-size layout.


Figure 17: Pivot by split


Figure 18: Stock portfolio with strip layout


Figure 19: Stock portfolio with cluster layout.


Figure 20: Stock portfolio with squarified layout.



This work has been supported in part by the DARPA Command Post of the Future program.


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[1] Java open source implementations of all the algorithms we describe here as well as dynamic demonstrations of these algorithms are available at http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/treemaps

[2] PhotoMesa is available for download at http://www.cs.umd.edu/hcil/photomesa

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