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I am working on a niche news site which has both free articles and articles that require a subscription to read. As far as I know the paid articles will outnumber the free ones.

I want to visually differentiate the paid articles from the free ones in the article listing pages by placing a graphical marker next to them (a lock icon on the paid ones OR a "free" label next to the free ones). But I am not sure which ones to mark.

From a user experience perspective, which option would be better? To mark the free ones or the paid ones?

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Given that your marker is going to be placed next to an article I'm assuming that its function will be to draw user attention. Generally speaking you don't want to draw user attention to regularities in your system but rather rarer events which in your case are the free articles. So that would be my preferred choice. I also think that free articles is what new users will be looking for. So it'll guide their search straight to where they can get examples of your content. Once they are happy with quality they might switch to paid.

One more thing. If you plan paid subscriptions (rather than pay per article) make sure to remove free / paid markers altogether for users who paid. For them this distinction is no longer practical and might even bring some confusion.

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