FAQ: What Is a Pilot Study and Why Is It Important?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 8, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In research, the amount of data the researchers collect can dictate the success of that investigation. Conducting a pilot study, a smaller-scale study that can help you determine certain factors before a major research project, is one way that researchers can improve their analysis. Understanding what a pilot study is and why it's important in research can help you determine if your team needs to conduct this type of study. In this article, we explore what a pilot study is, why it's so important, when to use it and other important details.

What is a pilot study?

A pilot study is a preliminary, small-scale study researchers conduct to determine the following metrics of a project:

  • Feasibility: This metric can help you decide whether it's feasible to conduct the large-scale study under the specified parameters or conditions.

  • Duration: This is the length of the project's timeline.

  • Cost: This refers to the overall cost of conducting the larger-scale research project and whether it's a good investment.

  • Adverse effects: These are potential errors or other adverse effects that might make a large-scale study dangerous or impossible to conduct safely.

Related: How To Write Research Questions (Plus Examples)

Why is a pilot study important in research?

A pilot study is important in research for many reasons, including:

  • Defining the initial research question: A small-scale study can help researchers define and further refine the initial research question by ruling out certain factors and establishing benchmarks that determine the feasibility of the large-scale effort.

  • Testing study and design processes: Pilot studies help researchers test their study and design processes to determine whether they can apply to a larger-scale study and allowing refinement before the large-scale study occurs.

  • Establishing different research techniques: The pilot study can allow a research team to explore alternative research techniques without the weight of responsibility and the potential cost of a large-scale project.

  • Testing safety measures: Pilot testing allows researchers to test safety measures and controls in a smaller-scale environment before applying them to the large-scale study and increasing potential risk.

  • Determining feasibility: The pilot test allows researchers to determine whether testing is necessary and deserving of the time, resources and financial backing the research might require.

  • Producing preliminary data: Researchers can use the pilot study to generate preliminary data, which may help convince stakeholders, investors or donors to the project to allocate more resources for a larger-scale study.

Related: 6 Steps To Conducting Market Research

When do professionals conduct pilot studies?

Professionals conduct pilot studies in many situations. These can include:

Targeting specific populations

When researchers want to target a specific population for a research study, like middle-aged women or residents of specific states, they might conduct a pilot study. This allows the researchers to learn whether they can effectively target the right population in a large-scale study and whether it's feasible to conduct the large-scale study. Targeting a specific population allows the research team to narrow research results to only certain groups, highlighting differences in opinions, biological responses and other factors.

Determining responsiveness

A research team might also conduct a pilot study to determine the responsiveness of participants. The team typically interviews or tests subjects the same way they might in the large-scale study, but on a lower scale to minimize costs and other resources. Once they collect the right amount of data, the team determines if targeting a specific population might yield the results they're seeking. Then, they can take this preliminary data to project stakeholders and advocate for the feasibility of the large-scale research.

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Determining research viability

Researchers also conduct pilot studies to determine if certain research is viable, meaning whether it provides practical, applicable information. For example, a pilot study might help a team of medical researchers determine if the population shows interest in a new pain medication. If there is minimal interaction or responses, the team might decide that conduct a larger study isn't viable. This is important to project stakeholders, who typically expect some kind of return for their financial commitments and want to know they're funding viable research efforts.

Randomizing target populations

Teams also use pilot studies to determine if they can randomize the populations they're studying. For example, a marketing research team might conduct a pilot study to see what kind of people respond to interactive ads. They might target a specific age group, but the study determines whether their ads can influence multiple age groups to participate. Randomization can help research teams gather more diverse data for a more thorough analysis of multiple populations.

When might professionals avoid conducting a pilot study?

Professionals may avoid a pilot study under the following circumstances:

Assessing safety and tolerance of medical treatments

Researchers typically avoid using pilot studies to assess the safety and tolerance of medical treatments. Smaller sample sizes typically don't yield the right amount of data to show any correlations or patterns for specific dangers or risks. With a larger data set, researchers can provide more accurate information, which is often a requirement for prescription drugs or medical treatments.

Providing initial answers to a research hypothesis

Professionals typically don't employ a pilot study to offer an initial answer to the original research hypothesis. Since the pilot study is a small-scale study that rarely has as many resources available as a large-scale study, it might not be possible to provide a definitive, supported answer to the original hypothesis. During the pilot study, researchers typically have limited knowledge about the best methods to use and are exploring how to perform large-scale research rather than answering a hypothesis.

Related: What Is Primary Research? (With Tips and Benefits in Marketing)

How do you interpret a pilot study?

Interpreting a pilot study requires an understanding of how the study works and the results the team is seeking. Generally, researchers use the following criteria to interpret a pilot study:

  • Alignment of objectives and feasibility: Researchers always determine whether the project's objectives align with overall feasibility to determine if a large-scale study is even possible.

  • Uniform criteria for success: Researchers determine the criteria for success of the pilot study, ensuring consistency across all criteria to provide a more accurate and uniform outcome for the study.

  • Consistency in randomization: Researchers who randomize their pilot studies ensure that the method of randomization remains the same throughout the pilot study and any ensuing large-scale studies for consistency.

Pilot studies typically conclude with one of the following after the team interprets the results:

  • The study is or isn't feasible. If the study isn't feasible, the team identifies what protocols change.

  • The study is feasible only with close monitoring and potential changes to the protocol.

  • The main study is feasible with no changes to the original protocol.

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