The Effect of Color Scales on Climate Scientists' Objective and Subjective Performance in Spatial Data Analysis Tasks

Aritra Dasgupta, Jorge Poco, Bernice Rogowitz, Kyungsik Han, Enrico Bertini, Claudio T. Silva

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Geographical maps encoded with rainbow color scales are widely used by climate scientists. Despite a plethora of evidence from the visualization and vision sciences literature about the shortcomings of the rainbow color scale, they continue to be preferred over perceptually optimal alternatives. To study and analyze this mismatch between theory and practice, we present a web-based user study that compares the effect of color scales on performance accuracy for climate-modeling tasks. In this study, we used pairs of continuous geographical maps generated using climatological metrics for quantifying pairwise magnitude difference and spatial similarity. For each pair of maps, 39 scientist-observers judged: i) the magnitude of their difference, ii) their degree of spatial similarity, and iii) the region of greatest dissimilarity between them. Besides the rainbow color scale, two other continuous color scales were chosen such that all three of them covaried two dimensions (luminance monotonicity and hue banding), hypothesized to have an impact on task performance. We also analyzed subjective performance measures, such as user confidence, perceived accuracy, preference, and familiarity in using the different color scales. We found that monotonic luminance scales produced significantly more accurate judgments of magnitude difference but were not superior in spatial comparison tasks, and that hue banding had differential effects based on the task and conditions. Scientists expressed the highest preference and perceived confidence and accuracy with the rainbow, despite its poor performance on the magnitude comparison tasks. We also report on interesting interactions among stimulus conditions, tasks, and color scales, that lead to open research questions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number8494817
Pages (from-to)1577-1591
Number of pages15
JournalIEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Visualization
  • color maps
  • rainbow color map
  • user study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Signal Processing
  • Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition
  • Computer Graphics and Computer-Aided Design


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