The Contextual Nature of Logging In

In my previous post, I discussed how the status of the user may play a role in their inability to log in to a library resource or service. In this post, I’d like to dig deeper into the topic of how the actual experience for the user can vary depending on a complex set of factors. At the most superficial level of analysis of use, a person has a task that they are trying to complete. With the task of logging in to something, the user either completes the task or they don’t. Delving in the context of that ask is what I hope to explore here. My aim is consider the interplay between the practical aspects of the task and the mental state of users as they undertake the task.

This exploration seems important to me as part of my effort as a user experience librarian who works with a team of people to design, redesign, or simply maintain online library systems and services. A key principle for me in my work, and for anyone who is engaged user-centered design, is to cultivate a deep empathy for the user or, more to the point, users, in all their variety and complexity. At Baruch College, where I am a librarian, the core audience for our library website includes:

  • 19,740 students (80% are undergraduate students, 20% graduate students)1 that collectively speak 111 languages and represent 168 countries2
  • 493 full-time and 607 part-time faculty3
  • Administrators and staff
  • 4,000 students from the CUNY School of Professional Studies with 97% of them in fully online courses4 and their faculty

While our user base is clearly diverse, maybe more so than the average American college or university community, I’d argue that for any college or university there is a diversity of contexts of use that are also important to recognize during the design process. In the library environment, designers can develop that sense of empathy by drawing on insights gathered in many different ways, such as formal user research (usability testing, ethnographic field studies, focus groups, etc.) as well as from the countless interactions we have in reference settings and in the classroom. While I’ve learned quite a bit from user research and from reference and classroom settings over the years, I have to also mention the fascinating insights I’ve gained from fellow CUNY colleagues, Maura Smale at the New York City College of Technology and Mariana Regalado at Brooklyn College, who have conducted multiple ethnographic research projects to document the scholarly habits of undergraduate students at a handful of CUNY colleges.

Compounding the diversity of users that we have to design for, there are countless variables related to the context of the user’s task that are going to effect how successful any one of those users are when presented with a login page. All of these variables are considerations that a designer must be aware of and weigh in their mind as they make design decisions). In the remainder of this post, I’ll lay out each of these variables and unpack them.

What Is the Task That the User Is Trying To Accomplish

A user may encounter a login page from the library while engaged in a range of common tasks, such as:

  • Searching for a known item (for a specific article, book, video, etc.)
  • Searching by subject for sources on a topic they are interested in)
  • Checking he status of something they have borrowed or requested or would like to request (due dates, fines, delivery dates, study room availability, etc.)

Why Are They Doing That Particular Task

If you can envision the range of reasons why a user may be engaged with these common tasks, then you can be more responsive to user needs in your design efforts. A related question to why a user is trying to complete a task is how important that task is to them at that moment. The issue of importance of the task connects with how persistent a user may be with an effort to log in to something and be willing to find a solution when their login efforts failed. The importance of the task to them (its personal significance to the user) may determine just how frustrated they are when they’re unable to login. Consider the difference between users each trying to log into a database to find articles on a topic who have different reasons for trying to accomplish that task.

A student might heard that the library has such-and-such database and wants to see what kinds of things are in it. Or maybe the student is in a workshop led by a librarian who has been invited into the student’s classroom by the professor. It’s likely the frustration levels will be lower in these kinds of casual uses than in more high-stakes use scenarios, such as a student who is under a tight deadline to finish a research paper with only hours to go before their deadline or a student who is stressed about and somewhat bewildered as they are working on their first-ever research paper. It seems a reasonable assumption that a casual user will be less frustrated by a login page that is confusing or even a dead-end for them than a user who is working on a project that is very important to them or challenging to them.

How the user reacts to the challenge of a login page will be shaped to a certain extent by reason why their task has brought them to this point. It’s reasonable to assume that the higher the stakes the context of the task is, the more likely it is that the user’s stress will undercut their ability to solve the puzzle of how to get past the login page, a process that often requires the user to slow down and think carefully and with some persistence about what credentials are being asked for. In short, stress can short-circuit the user’s ability to successfully log in to something.

Where Is the User When They Are Trying to Login

Consider all the places a user might be when they are trying to log into something:

  • They are at home, which may be quiet or very busy and distracting
  • They are at work where their efforts to log in take place during a break or maybe they’re trying to sneak in some schoolwork
  • They are using public wifi in some location where they may be worried about how much time they can be there or they be working hard to tune out distractions around them
  • They are on the go (e.g, using a phone while riding in a car, bus, train, etc.)

In each location, there may be greater or lower levels of frustration or stress for the user as they work on a task that may in turn effect how successful they are when presented with login requests.

What Device and Network Is the User On

The size of the user’s screen, how well a site is designed for accessibility, and the available input tools (keyboards, touchscreens, touchpads, mice, styluses, etc.) can all dramatically effect the user’s experience on any website. When designing a set of login pages, the designer needs to consider the range of devices users might have and make sure their login system performs equally for all of them.

The expectations for what users think they can do easily on a device may not line up with reality. It might be, for example, the case that when the user on a phone has entered the wrong login credentials, the error messages that are then displayed don’t convey as clearly as on a big screen how to get help for this error (i.e., systems to confirm your credentials, to reset them, or link to chat, email, or phone help options). Even the input devices that the user’s device has may also be harder or easier to use for the text input boxes where the user name and password are entered (for me, I am much more prone to typing errors on mobile devices than on a full-sized keyboard, which is especially apparent when I’m typing in passwords that are filled with numbers, symbols, random letters that may be capitalized).

Another variable is whose device someone is using when trying to log into something. It’s fair to assume that a person’s comfort level when encountering login requests and their success rate in getting past them goes up when they are using their own device that they regularly use, one that may have user names and passwords stored already in the browser or a password manager. On a device not our own, we can’t count on having those stored login credentials readily at hand, and our overall comfort and skill level with that device is likely to be lower than when it’s own our device. If the device is one shared in a household, there may be increased pressure on the user to complete their tasks quickly so that others can have their turn to use the device (I’m thinking here of the way my two sons used to battle and bicker over the family desktop computer in our living room).

The network that a user is on is yet another factor. Think of all the possibilities and how they shape the user experience:

  • A strong broadband connection on your home network vs. a weak one at home that cuts out intermittently
  • A work network where you may be worried about your employer being alerted to what you’re doing on work time
  • A mobile network that cuts out as you are on the go

How Savvy Is the User with Managing Logins

Is the system the user relies to keep track of logins sufficient or a source of ongoing frustration for them? Do they have no system for this, do they rely on scraps of paper, a notebook, browser storage, or a password manager? Do they find themselves always having to use the “forgot your user name” or “forgot your password” features? Are they surprised and annoyed when their efforts to find sources for a paper are leading to logins? Can they recognize the difference between a login system that the library has set up from a login system from the vendor that will only work for individual subscribers to that service or database?

When designing login systems, we should be making systems that are intelligible and usable for the least experienced user and that are as forgiving as possible.

What’s Next

As I’m thinking aloud here in these blog posts about the UX of logging in, I hope to be working toward some recommendations about design options for login systems that take into consideration the variability of user experience of library systems and services. I’m hoping to remind myself of what I’ve learned over the years and, more importantly, to recognize what I know I don’t know. The first thing I want to design is a better help page for users at my library who are having trouble logging in to something that my library is responsible for. I’m also interested in exploring whether some sort of troubleshooting guide for users might be worth the effort. Before I get to that, though, I want to write a post about how one moves from recognizing and understanding all the contextual variability of logging in to deciding what use scenarios are the ones to focus on in design efforts. This is always a problematic issue, this leap from UX research to UX design that requires you to limit the number of problems you hope to solve. Knowing which problems matter the most is always the most difficult part of the process. Following that post, I want to look at what sorts of help pages and troubleshooting systems libraries and other institutions have designed to assist users with the login process. I also think I need to do a post on what I wish our vendors would do to help us make the login process easier and what things we in libraries can be doing now.


1 Baruch College, “Fact Sheet,” 2020.

2 Baruch College, “Facts at a Glance,” 2020.

3 Baruch College, “Baruch College Self Study 2020,” 2020.

4 CUNY School of Professional Studies, “About,” 2021.

Other Posts in This Series

“The User Experience of Logging In: An Introduction,” 29 January 2021