It really is astonishing. A tumbling waterfall fills the cavernous glass canopy with mist; trees stretch out overhead and all around. Just when you start to take in the scale, a train drives through the middle of it.

The waterfall continues its descent to the basement, filling a three-storey perspex tube that lights up green, purple and blue. People press up to touch the glass, staring mesmerised as though asking themselves: “Is this really an airport”?

This is the Jewel, the newest gem for Singapore’s Changi Airport, and a tourist attraction in its own right. “The first impression must be ‘wow’, that’s what we want,” says Jeremy Yeo, Vice President and Head of User Experience for Jewel.

He spoke with GovInsider about the tech, data and design thinking behind this project, and the lessons it gives to service designers everywhere.

Enter the Forest Valley

Walk into the Jewel from any walkway and the first view is always the same, Yeo explains. The “Forest Valley” sees 2,000 trees, over 100,000 shrubs and 120 species filling a giant indoor coliseum. This showcases Singapore’s vision of a ‘city in a garden’.

You will also be greeted by a friendly face, he says. “We still think for Jewel the human element is really important”. At every entrance point there is a human concierge ready to give advice. The building is a feat of engineering, but the tech is mostly behind the scenes like a futuristic five star hotel.

The vision is for “subtle” but “foundational” tech to enhance visitors’ experience, Yeo says. There are ground sensors for staff to track and manage crowds, which numbered more than half a million in the first week alone. “That helps us to better deploy our resources – ‘Jewel hosts’ – to provide service to these people.”

There are 140 digital directories throughout Jewel, all strategically located using data to find the busiest spots. They provide information such as flight times and a ‘find my car’ option to help locals navigate 2,500 parking spots, Yeo says.

The next step involves facial recognition, which is just being trialled. Digital directories will classify visitors, for example displaying games for children to play when they approach the screen, and that will provide “contextual marketing”. The Jewel was built by Changi Airport in conjunction with a big shopping mall owner, CapitaLand, and has used design lessons from shopping malls to keep people entertained.

A Jewel app is also in the works, which will open up new possibilities for the shops to “know their customer”, Yeo says. He wants to add gamification elements, to get a better understanding of what will keep visitors coming back for more. Their top three needs are free wifi, cleanliness and customer service, according to the data.

Why not robots?

When you go to Incheon International Airport, it’s impossible to escape the helpful army of robots. Why did Jewel not take the same approach? Such a massive complex can be bewildering to navigate – and so “human touch points” are important, Yeo explains.

With the sheer amount of human traffic that descends upon Jewel each day, “deploying robots has a limitation – actually robots are meant to move around and serve”. These little helpers still need a clear space around them to work properly, he says, and it’s better to design crowd flows and use people or directories to help them.

Currently, the robots are confined to the boring tasks, such as garbage collection. Singapore’s Housing and Development Board recently trialled an automated refuse collecting system for public housing blocks.

But there are also plans to develop robots for a fun extra experience, Jewel’s Yeo notes. Perhaps they could be ‘smart’ enough to show guests around the shops, he explains. “You can also deploy a robot to help give sweets or water to guests; this is productivity at its most basic sense.”

Enter the dome

A ten storey glass dome could become a giant greenhouse, broiling visitors in the tropical heat. So the team has obsessed around “human comfort” when designing the space, creating a welcoming space to shop.

They chose glass that allows light to enter while filtering out most of the heat – crucial for keeping the plants alive. Each plot has been studied and modelled to ensure it gets the exact right amount of light, with UV lights added for some of the hungrier species.

The temperature is monitored closely – 23 degrees plus or minus one – which makes quite a difference from the 33 degree tropical heat outside. Touch the floor and it’s cold to the touch, with air conditioning units buried into “chill slabs” throughout the building. Small “diffuser” vents then create a breeze that allows the cool air to flow, gathering mist from the central waterfall.

This giant fountain uses half a million litres of water every minute, and it is tropical rainwater with a top up of Singapore’s own ‘NEWwater’, which is purified and recycled from the main system. It had to be carefully calculated to ensure that it flows, shimmering as it goes, rather than sprinkling like a showerhead.

Behind the UX team

Yeo isn’t an architect, and neither is his team. They form a dedicated unit of user experience (UX) designers who “spar” with the architects to provide visitors with the best possible time at the Jewel. The team has grown from 4 people to more than 30, overseeing visitor experience, facilities, retail and operations.

The building remains a work in progress. “Gone are the days that you just construct and hope that the construction meets the needs and serve the needs of a guest,” he says. His team will constantly use surveys and crowd analysis to see what’s working, and what isn’t – adapting spaces, launching new attractions, and reacting to a changing world.

The current visitors form two distinct groups, he says: 40 per cent are travellers, while 60 per cent are from the general public. The building has to be entertaining enough to draw in locals, and pleasant enough to attract tourists who have already checked out of their hotels and need to chill out.

The building provides lessons for all forms of public service, from immigration halls to welfare centres. Every step has been designed to be as easy as possible for the user to experience. And it must be “inclusive” too, Yeo says – old and young in a multiracial, multilingual nation can use the facilities without any obstacles.

Not every public service needs a seven-storey waterfall and an indoor forest, of course. But most would benefit from a user experience designer like Jeremy Yeo, looking after the little things that really matter the most.

Photos from Jewel Changi Airport Devt. and YouTube