A pilot study, pilot project, pilot test, or pilot experiment is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, duration, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project.
Pilot experiments are frequently carried out before large-scale quantitative research, in an attempt to avoid time and money being used on an inadequately designed project. A pilot study is usually carried out on members of the relevant population. A pilot study is often used to test the design of the full-scale experiment which then can be adjusted. It is a potentially valuable insight and, should anything be missing in the pilot study, it can be added to the full-scale (and more expensive) experiment to improve the chances of a clear outcome.
In sociology, pilot studies can be referred to as small-scale studies that will help identify design issues before the main research is done. Although pilot experiments have a well-established tradition, their usefulness as a strategy for change has been questioned, at least in the domain of environmental management.Extrapolation from a pilot study to large scale strategy may not be assumed as possible, partly due to the exceptional resources and favorable conditions that accompany a pilot study.
In the health research context, studies conducted in preparation for a future randomized controlled trial are known as pilot and feasibility studies, where pilot studies are a subset of feasibility studies. A feasibility study asks whether something can be done, should we proceed with it, and if so, how. A pilot study asks the same questions, but also has a specific design feature: in a pilot study, a future study – or part of a future study – is conducted on a smaller scale.
A checklist was published in 2016 to provide guidance on how to report pilot trials.