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Background: Cluster heatmaps are commonly used in biology and related fields to reveal hierarchical clusters in data matrices. This visualization technique has high data density and reveal clusters better than unordered heatmaps alone. However, cluster heatmaps have known issues making them both time consuming to use and prone to error. We hypothesize that visualization techniques without the rigid grid constraint of cluster heatmaps will perform better at clustering-related tasks.

Results: We developed an approach to “unbox” the heatmap values and embed them directly in the hierarchical clustering results, allowing us to use standard hierarchical visualization techniques as alternatives to cluster heatmaps. We then tested our hypothesis by conducting a survey of 45 practitioners to determine how cluster heatmaps are used, prototyping alternatives to cluster heatmaps using pair analytics with a computational biologist, and evaluating those alternatives with hour-long interviews of 5 practitioners and an Amazon Mechanical Turk user study with approximately 200 participants. We found statistically significant performance differences for most clustering-related tasks, and in the number of perceived visual clusters. Visit for our results.

Conclusions: The optimal technique varied by task. However, gapmaps were preferred by the interviewed practitioners and outperformed or performed as well as cluster heatmaps for clustering-related tasks. Gapmaps are similar to cluster heatmaps, but relax the heatmap grid constraints by introducing gaps between rows and/or columns that are not closely clustered. Based on these results, we recommend users adopt gapmaps as an alternative to cluster heatmaps.


© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

Presented as conference paper at: 6th Symposium on Biological Data Visualization Baltimore, MD, USA. 24/10/2016