What kind of UI design practices one could employ to protect the user's sensitive information from someone who might be looking (occasionally) at user's monitor from behind a shoulder or a nearby desk?

The software displays mostly a textual information and it is impossible for the user to use that software in a private space to avoid other's people watching.

What are the design decisions one could use to make it difficult for the onlooker to see what the user is reading or typing and to minimize the amount of information which could be "leaked" to other human eye?

  • The more practical solution is probably to change the design of the room where the system is used. E.g., in a computer lab in a university, you can put privacy screens between desks. I realize that this is not viable for every case, but where it is, it is usually better than obscuring the information on the screen. – Rumi P. Nov 11 '13 at 12:38
  • This appears to be an ergonomics/office layout/security question much more than UX. A UX solution is likely going to make this product less usable for the user. – DA01 Nov 11 '13 at 15:51
  • @DA01 what is definition of UX in your context? why would UX solution going to make that product less usable? – Mitten Nov 13 '13 at 11:30
  • @Mitten because it appears the objective is to hide information. That rarely (if ever?) would seem to make for a better UX for the user. – DA01 Nov 13 '13 at 15:28
  • I cant agree here. The purpose of the question was to make the software more usable. without such design decisions the software under question will be hardly usable. i believe it is better to give user a choice albeit a hard one - to use software with some limitations or not to use it at all. – Mitten Nov 17 '13 at 5:54

If you're not discounting hardware changes, then a field-narrowing filter is often used in these circumstances (most commonly on ATM displays). It restricts the field of view so that the screen is only visible from directly in front.

It's a relatively cheap and easily-applied solution, obviating the need for major changes to software, which may not even be possible.

3M make them, and their product page which demonstrates it was easy to find; others are available too.

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In some cases it might work to hide the text and use a text-to-speech system (or, for better quality, the record of a real human’s speech). Users would use a headphone.

In some cases it might work to use a small default font size, making it harder/impossible for people not very near to the screen to read the text.

In some cases it might work to use a small width/height for the text section. Users would be able to cover this area with their body/hands.

In some cases it might work to change the text to some gibberish and use the mouse as some kind of deciphering magnifying glass. When the mouse hovers the text, the gibberish gets deciphered (as long as users hover). Bonus points for not making the mouse cursor eye-catching, so that other people have a hard time to identify which little part of the text makes sense currently.

Note that all these solutions have accessibility problems (text-to-speech doesn’t work for hearing impaired users, small font size doesn’t work for visually impaired users, deciphering mouse cursor doesn’t work for keyboard users, etc.). But this is, to some extent, the goal of these designs.

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  • thanks unor. I was thinking along the same lines, but can't really find the balance between ease of use and security. I don't think my users would be able to use extra hardware (covering display with a protective screen as suggested or a headphone) but I think they should be able to live with a fact that some of the data would be seen by others. As the software is mostly contained from text screens, I was thinking about blurring (or making font too small) the all other paragraphs except the one user is reading or editing. Another idea I have in mind but don't know how to implement is ... – Mitten Nov 10 '13 at 6:17
  • ... some sort of a visual decoy mechanism which being placed next (or to the side off) to the actual information would grab the onlooker attention for some time, leaving less time for the skimming through the sensitive info. – Mitten Nov 10 '13 at 6:21

Our IT guys have an Excel sheet with passwords for external services. They have "Password" column there a white-on-white (white letters on white background). So they can open the sheet even before users not afraiding of them overlooking. Just select needed cell and Ctrl-C. Or Ctrl-A to select all (letters become visible).

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If you are displaying text sentences and are prepared to inconvience the primary person then you could use sliding text replacement.

Say you want to display "red cars go fastest". Give the user N mouseover buttons, (I will pretend you only have two buttons)

With the mouse over the first button, display "red over go louises". When the mouse moves over the second button, change the text to "eat cars at fastest". As the reader moves the mouse, the correct word appears. With practice they can get quite quick and it is difficult for a casual observer to quickly decipher (but is trivial if they film the screen).

There are some implementation details to stop text jumping around, as the words need to remain in the same physical place or it cannot be read.

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  • Thank you very much - really like your idea, I was thinking doing the same but for the whole paragraphs, not just a few "hover over mouse" sentences. But even doing so on a paragraphs makes it difficult to do what people normally do when working with / reading the text: such as 1) be able to skim through the whole page 2) find what has been previously noted, to read it slowly. Any ideas how to make 1&2 possible? – Mitten Nov 10 '13 at 6:28
  • One of the drawbacks with most obfustification systems is that you lose the ability to quickly scan for key phrases, so the points you have noted are shortcomings of this system. If you are highlighting a paragraph at a time though, #1 shouldnt be too bad. – rlb Nov 12 '13 at 6:22

What kind of textual information are we talking about? And what does the user intend to do with it?

The first idea that struck my mind when dealing with passwords (if thats the case) is forcing the user to use strings that no one is able to remember within a short glance at the screen. i5n3o4b4j3b would not be as easy to remember instantly as my-dogs-name-is-lassie.

The second idea was to let the user decide how long to display that specific content for. Encrypt all critical content, cluster it and put a button next to every cluster. By pressing and holing down the button the user can decide for how long s/he wants to display the content. If your dealing with a touch device, decrypt the text by tapping and holding on that cluster of encrypted text. In any way: try to let the user not having to refocus on the text s/he wants to read.

The whole idea here is to let the user decide when to show the content. Hope this might work for you?

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