Trial Balloons & Pilot Studies

A pilot study is to research what a trial balloon is to politics

In politics, a trial balloon is communicating a law or policy idea via media to see how the intended audience reacts to it.  A trial balloon does not answer the question, “Would this policy (or law) work?” Instead a trial balloon answers questions like “Which people hate the idea of the policy/law–even if it would work?” or “What problems might enacting it create?” In other words, a trial balloon answers questions that a politician wants to know BEFORE implementing a policy so that the policy or law can be tweaked to be successfully put in place.


In research, a pilot study is sort of like a trial balloon. It is “a small-scale test of the methods and procedures” of a planned full-scale study (Porta, Dictionary of Epidemiology, 5th edition, 2008). A pilot study answers questions that we want to know BEFORE doing a larger study, so that we can tweak the study plan and have a successful full-scale research project. A pilot study does NOT answer research questions or hypotheses, such as “Does this intervention work?”  Instead a pilot study answers the question “Are these research procedures workable?”

A pilot study asks & answers:Can I recruit my target population? Can the treatments be delivered per protocol? Are study conditions acceptable to participants?” and so on.   A pilot study should have specific measurable benchmarks for feasibility testing. For example if the pilot is finding out whether subjects will adhere to the study, then adherence might be defined as  “70 percent of participants in each [group] will attend at least 8 of 12 scheduled group sessions.”  Sample size is based on practical criteria such as  budget, participant flow, and the number needed to answer feasibility questions (ie. questions about whether the study is workable).

A pilot study does NOT Test hypotheses (even preliminarily); Use inferential statistics; Assess safety of a treatment; Estimate effect size; Demonstrate safety of an intervention.

A pilot study is not just a small study.

Next blog: Why this matters!!

For more info read the source of all quotes in this blog: Pilot Studies: Common Uses and Misuses @

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