The software would also help the user to move programmes from computer screens to mobile devices, which do not have a standard operating system, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) said.
"Microsoft and Apple aren't going to open up all their stuff. But they all create programmes that put pixels on the screen. And if we can modify those pixels, then we can change the program's apparent behaviour," said Prof James Fogarty.
"We really see this as a first step toward a scenario where anybody can modify any application," Fogarty said.
The UW tool, named Prefab, allows people to personalise programmes based on their needs, according to the report that appeared online in Physorg.com.
Prefab takes advantage of the fact that almost all displays are made from prefabricated blocks of code such as buttons, sliders, check boxes and drop-down menus.
The tool looks for those blocks as many as 20 times per second and alters their behaviour. It unlocks previously inaccessible interfaces and allows people to add the same usability tool to all the applications they run on their desktop.
The system could also translate a program's interface into a different language, or reorder menus to bump up favourite commands.
It can also produce more advanced effects like creating multiple previews of a single image in Photoshop.
For this, Prefab moves the sliders to different points, captures the output and then displays all of them on a single screen. This could save time by showing a range of effects the user frequently adjusts.
The researchers are continuing to develop Prefab and are exploring options for commercialisation. They hope Prefab will spur development of new innovations.
Fogarty's approach is to use the display to customize the user's interaction with the program.
The software would be demonstrated in Atlanta at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
The study has been funded by the Hacherl Endowed Graduate Fellowship in the UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering, a fellowship from the Seattle chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists, and Intel.