The anterior refracting surface of the eye is the thin tear film that forms on the surface of the cornea. Following a blink, the tear film quickly smoothes and starts to become irregular after 10 seconds. This irregularity can affect comfort and vision quality. An in vivo method of characterizing dynamic tear films has been designed based upon a near-infrared phase-shifting interferometer. This interferometer continuously measures light reflected from the tear film, allowing sub-micron analysis of the dynamic surface topography. Movies showing the tear film behavior can be generated along with quantitative metrics describing changes in the tear film surface. This tear film measurement allows analysis beyond capabilities of typical fluorescein visual inspection or corneal topography and provides better sensitivity and resolution than shearing interferometry methods. The interferometer design is capable of identifying features in the tear film much less than a micron in height with a spatial resolution of about ten microns over a 6 mm diameter. This paper presents the design of the tear film interferometer along with the considerations that must be taken when designing an interferometer for on-eye diagnostics. Discussions include eye movement, design of null optics for a range of ocular geometries, and laser emission limits for on-eye interferometry.