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What is pilot testing?

Last updated

12 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Tanya Williams

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When you have a new project in mind, conducting a pilot test can help you get a better feel for how it will ultimately perform. However, a strong understanding of what pilot testing is, how it works, and what you may need to do with it is essential to the overall performance of your test and your product.

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What is pilot testing?

Pilot testing is a preliminary test or study conducted before a larger-scale study. A pilot study can present key information that can help guide the direction of the larger study or research project, including providing insights into the ultimate cost of the study, its overall feasibility, and any challenges that the actual study may face once it gets off the ground.

Why pilot testing is important

In many cases, a pilot test can go a long way toward providing more information and deeper insights into your future study.

Learn more about potential costs

You will likely have a specific budget related to your project. Therefore, you will want to get the best possible results from your study within that budget, but you may not be exactly sure how the budget constraints will ultimately impact your project. 

Conducting a pilot study can help you determine what the cost of a larger study will look like, which can ensure that you manage your sample size and testing plans accordingly. 

Provide key information about possible issues

A pilot test can help provide deeper insights into any issues you might face when running your larger study. With a pilot test, you can learn more about the effectiveness of the methods you've chosen, the feasibility of gathering the information you need, and the practicality of your study. Furthermore, you may notice any possible problems with your study early, which means you can adjust your methods when you begin that larger-scale testing. 

Determine feasibility

In some cases, you may find through pilot testing that the study you want to perform simply isn't realistic, based on the availability of key data and/or the way your brand functions. For example, you might have a hard time getting real-world answers from your customers, or you might discover that customers aren't using your products the way you had hoped. 

By determining feasibility through the pilot test, you can avoid wasting money on a larger-scale study that might not provide you with the information you need. 

Shape your research

Sometimes, your pilot study may quickly reveal that the information you thought to be true, actually isn't. You may discover that customers are looking for different features or options than you initially expected, or that your customers aren't interested in a specific product. 

On the other hand, your pilot study may uncover that customers have a much deeper use for some feature or product than you thought, making efforts to remove it counterproductive. With a pilot study, you can shape your future research efforts more effectively. 

Uses for pilot studies

Pilot studies can be used in a variety of ways. Some of these include:

  • Trials of new products

  • Testing customer focus groups

  • Conducting product testing

  • Seeking more information about your target audience

  • Market research

Misuses of pilot studies

While pilot studies have a number of critical uses, they can, in some cases, be misused. Take a look at these common challenges that can occur during pilot studies, interfering with accurate data collection

  • Misreporting of data: can make it difficult for researchers to see the information they originally sought to obtain through pilot testing

  • Improper testing methods: pilot studies may, in some cases, use inaccurate or inappropriate testing methods, causing researchers to arrive at errant conclusions

  • Inaccurate predictions: if used to inform future testing methods, they may create bias in the final results of the study

Properly conducting pilot studies is essential to using that data and information correctly in the future. The data is only as good as the methodology used to procure it.

Objectives of pilot testing

Pilot testing has several objectives, including: 

  • Identify the potential cost of a larger study

  • Determine the feasibility of a study

  • Get a closer look at risks, time involved, and ultimate performance in a larger study

How to do pilot testing

Conducting a pilot test involves several key steps, such as:

  • Determine the objective of the study

  • Choose key data points to analyze based on the study's goals

  • Prepare for the pilot test, including making sure that all researchers or testers are well informed

  • Deploy the pilot test, including all research

  • Evaluate the results

  • Use the results of the pilot test to make any changes to the larger test

Steps after evaluation of pilot testing

Once you have evaluated your pilot test, there are several steps you may want to take. These can include:

  • Identifying any potential risks associated with the study and taking steps to mitigate them 

  • Analyzing the results of your pilot and the feasibility of continuing

  • Developing methods for collecting and analyzing data for your larger study, including making any changes indicated by the product pilot test

The benefits of pilot testing

Pilot testing offers a number of important benefits:

  • Learn more about your study methods and get a feel for what your actual test will look like

  • Avoid costly errors that could interfere with your results or prevent you from finishing your study

  • Make sure your study is realistic and feasible based on current data and capability 

  • Get early insights into the possible results of a larger-scale test

Often, the results of a pilot test can help inform future testing methodology or shape the course of the future study.

Best practices for pilot testing

Understanding good practices for pilot testing can help you build a test that reflects the current needs and status of your organization. It’s important to consider the following:

  • Make sure all personnel are fully trained and understand the data they need to collect and methods for reporting and collecting that data. Incorrect data collection and/or analysis can interfere with your study and make it more difficult to get the information you need.

  • Identify clear key metrics for later analysis. Make sure you know what you are planning to analyze and what you want to learn from the pilot study. 

  • Base results on evidence, rather than simply collecting evidence to support a hypothesis. Using unbiased data collection methods can make a big difference in the outcome of your study.

  • Use pilot testing results to make changes to your future study that can help cut costs and improve outcomes. 

  • Remain open to different outcomes in the final test. While pilot testing can provide some insights, it may not provide the same information as a larger-scale test, especially when you conduct a pilot test with a limited segment of your target audience. 

Pilot testing vs. beta testing

During pilot testing, researchers are able to gather data prior to releasing or deploying a product. A pilot test is designed to offer insights into the product and/or customers. 

A beta test, on the other hand, actively deploys a version of the product into the customer’s environment and allows them to use it and provide feedback. Beta testing is generally conducted when a product is nearing completion, while a pilot test may be conducted early in the process.


Why is it called a pilot test?

A pilot test is an initial test or a miniature version of a larger-scale study or project. The term "pilot" means to test a plan, project, or other strategy before implementing it more fully across an organization. A pilot test is generally conducted before beta testing in the case of a product or software release.

What is pilot testing of a product?

A pilot test invites a limited group of users to test out a new product or solution and provide feedback. During a pilot test, the product will be released to a very limited group of reviewers, often hand-picked by the testing organization.

What is the difference between a pilot test and a pretest?

Generally, a pretest involves only a small selection of the elements involved in the larger-scale study. A pretest might help identify immediate concerns or provide deeper insight into a product's functionality or desirability. A pilot test, on the other hand, is a miniature version of the final test, conducted with the same attributes as the final research study.

Is pilot testing the same as alpha testing?

Alpha testing is a testing process usually applied to software. It is designed specifically to look at the bugs in a product before it is launched in a public form, including beta test form. Pilot testing, on the other hand, is a full test of the entire product and its features, and may involve end users.

While alpha testing is generally performed by employees of the organization and may involve testing strategies designed to identify challenges and problems, pilot testing usually involves use of the product by end users. Those users will then report on their findings and provide more insight into the product's overall functionality.

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