3 Ways to Visualize Hierarchical Structures

I’m always thinking about alternative ways to present information to PLM software users. I think one of PLM’s challenges is to be able to present complex data in a simple way. Using 3D is one of the possibilities to reduce the complexity of data representations and visualize it for users. Hierarchical data is everywhere in PLM – product structure, bill of materials, drawing. Today, I’d like to show three possible ways to visualize hierarchical data to make it more presentable to a user.

Tree Map

A tree map is a visualization of hierarchical structures. This type of visualization is very efficient in a space constraint situation. The best you can do with such a visualization is to show attributes of leaf nodes in trees with appropriated color-coding and size. You can read more about this type of visualization on IBM’s Many Eyes project and here on 3D Perspectives. On the picture below you can see an example of a tree map visualization related to car fuel consumption. You can change the order, color code and sizing. This is, of course, depends on a specific implementation.

Botanical Tree

Here’s another interesting approach o visualizing huge structures. You can take a look at this research for more information. I found it very interesting. The authors are proposing models for tree organizing and visualization. I found this 3D visualization approach as something promising when we face a huge structure of information we want to discover. On the below image you can see the visualization of a Unix Directory using this method presented in this work.

Timeline Tree

This type of visualization, in my view, is an efficient way to combine hierarchical structure and time-related information. In many situations in product development, this is an interesting case. So, you can download and take a look at this research. I can imagine many situations when such visualization can be very useful (i.e. to present product structure with the relevant maintenance schedule and many others).

I’m sure there are many additional ways to visualize hierarchical data. I’m looking forward to your comments and discussing this.

Best, Oleg

  • It reminds me the FSN user interface shown in Jurassic Park in 1993.

    It was running in Silicon Graphics computers :



  • It’s a bit different, but one could say that Sankey Diagrams are a way to show Hierarchical flows (as it is flows, an item can have several parents).



  • Laurent, I’ve seen multiple options to discover file systems in 3D ways. For some reasons, customers dislike it. I think file system is relatively simple and overkill it with 3D doesn’t make sense. It indeed make sense in case where hard to image what type of information is in front of the user (file system is not that case)…. What is your opinion? Best regards, Oleg

  • Cédric, Thank you for link about Sankey diagrams. I haven’t had chance to see it before. This is reminds me mind-map a little. Regards, Oleg

  • Brian

    I have to admit that I struggle to see what you really get out of 3D data visualisation (certainly in a PLM perspective). If the information is available (size, cost, weight) such that you can use it to model say the Botanical Tree then you can (should be able to) get that same data and apply a very simple sort/filter to it to discover the large/high value/heavy etc items.
    Since you need to know what you are looking for in all cases then creating a sorted list or a 2D pareto graph will yield similar results.
    Maybe I just can’t “see” uses for it because I haven’t “seen it”.
    In a few years I’ll probably have to eat my words but until someone comes up with a convincing and pervasive real time Data mining/3D Visualisation tool which allows the users to select any attribute/meta data relating to the information under review I can’t see it taking off.
    Maybe if Microsoft offered it as an option for file system display people would get a taste for it but I have to agree that most of the time 3D is overkill for file systems and I can’t think of a common application that would whet peoples appetites.

  • Brian, I haven’t seen a specific purpose for such data visualization. My point was – people are trying to get our results from set of data. And amount is growing. To be able to represent them visually can help in finding relevant results of “patterns” you cannot see without graphical representation. Best, Oleg

  • I think this is a very relevant area for research. The pace of data creation today (and the low cost with which that data is stored) means that we need new ways to understand information from data. To be pragmatic, we have a limited number of dimensions to explore for representing data, and I think one of those dimensions is conspicuously absent from visual PLM interfaces.

    Specifically, we can represent complex data in 2D or 3D, we can use color, we can use size, and we can use shape. Perhaps I am forgetting other elements, but the one that seems missing to me is time. I haven’t seen any animated interfaces for complex hierarchical data where the animation contributes to the representation of the data. I can imagine the 3D tree above (Figure 12) where the nodes grow and shrink, sparkle, spin, fade in and out, etc. to connote things like deprecation, recent activity, change-in-process, etc.