Survey Pilot

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Survey pilot is the process of carrying out interviews and tests on different components of a survey, including content and protocols. A good pilot provides the research team with important feedback before they start the process of primary data collection. This feedback can help the research team review and improve the design of the questionnaire, translated questionnaires, as well as survey protocols related to scheduling interviews, sampling, and geo data.

Read First

  • A comprehensive survey pilot includes 3 stages: a pre-pilot, a content-focused pilot, and a data-focused pilot.
  • The pre-pilot is usually done during the process of designing a questionnaire, to refine the design, and wording of questions.
  • The content-focused pilot is conducted after designing a questionnaire, and sharing it with field and sector experts for their comments and inputs.
  • Finally, the data-focused pilot allows the research team to review the data collected during the pilot, and identify possible errors in the programmed questionnaire.
  • A survey pilot is different from the field testing (practice interviews) that enumerators conduct at the end of enumerator training. The pilot should be complete before enumerator training begins.
  • Participants of a survey pilot include the research team, interviewers, and respondents.
  • Conduct the first two stages of the pilot before programming the questionnaire. Repeated programming is time-consuming and can create bugs (errors), for instance, by disturbing the order of questions.

Stages of a Survey Pilot

A complete survey pilot is conducted over three stages - pre-pilot, content-focused pilot, and data-focused pilot. The table below discusses these stages in more detail.

Stage 1: Pre-pilot Stage 2: Content-focused pilot Stage 3: Data-focused pilot
Objective Answer broad questions about
qualitative factors like questionnaire design and the context for
conducting the study. Discuss these
with the concerned teams.

Learn more about how people think to
see what structure and flow makes
sense. For example, do people think
about their input use at plot-level?
By crop? Overall?

It helps to think of the pre-pilot as a part of the process of questionnaire design.
For example, the pre-pilot can answer
specific questions such as - important sources of income, relevant types of shocks, local food groups, and so on.

In cases where the research team is
using a pre-existing questionnaire, they
can skip this step. However, a pre-pilot
is absolutely essential if the research
is designing a questionnaire from scratch, or if the questionnaire asks questions about issues that are
difficult to measure.

Refine the order and wording of specific questions, the overall structure of the questionnaire, and translations.

Check that the answer choices are comprehensive, that is, they cover all possibilities.

Flag any sensitive questions.

Check how long it takes to answer the questions. Also check how answers differ between respondents (response variance)

Check if the programmed instrument displays questions in the correct order, and follows the correct patterns (such as a group of questions which will always appear together, or will repeat).

Load a sample data set (based on pilot interviews). Check if the data set has any missing fields. Perform all data quality checks, like back checks and high frequency checks.

Status of survey instrument Early, printable version of the draft, and notes for further discussion. A translated, printable draft. Ready to be programmed. A translated, programmed, final draft. Ready for starting data collection.
Mode Pen-and-paper Pen-and-paper Electronic (phone/tablet)

However, note that all three stages may not be necessary for every survey. The research team has to determine which stage to begin from on a case-to-case basis.

  • If the research team is using a brand new survey instrument, then they must start with Stage 1, the pre-pilot.
  • If the survey instrument is an adaptation of (based on) a different instrument which was used for a previous data collection for another project in the same region (province or country), the research team can start with Stage 2, the content-focused pilot. However, they must make sure that the survey instrument does not have any design issues and was shared by a reliable source.
  • If the survey instrument is an adaptation of an instrument used for a previous data collection for the same project, but the research team had to make significant revisions or additions, even then the research team should start with Stage 2, the content-focused pilot.
  • Only if the research team is piloting a follow-up survey, and there are no major changes from the baseline (or first round) survey, then in this case the research team may skip directly to Stage 3, the data-focused pilot.

Pilot on paper first

The first two stages of the survey pilot (pre-pilot and content-focused pilot) are best done on pen-and-paper is done on paper, regardless of the planned survey mode (pen-and-paper personal interviews (PAPI), computer-assisted personal interviews (CAPI), phone surveys (CATI)). A pen-and-paper pilot allows members of the research team and interviewers flexibility when it comes to recording answers and qualitative observations.

Piloting on paper is particularly helpful for the following:

  • Open-ended responses. pre-pilot responses help the research team to make the list of choices for a question more detailed and comprehensive. Pen-and-paper pilots allow the interviewers to make note of these.
  • Restructuring. Pen-and-paper pilots allow the interviewers to draw lines and arrows between questions, which makes it easier to restructure the instrument.
  • Observations. Pen-and-paper pilots allow interviewers to record observations and feedback of interviewers in the margins. This allows the research team to take note of issues, such as the wording or flow of questions.


In order to conduct a successful survey pilot, the impact evaluation team must draft a detailed timeline for a survey pilot. The timeline should allow enough time for discussions and revisions about aspects like instrument design, translation, and protocols. Piloting should ideally start 4-6 months before survey launch since this allows the research team to use the feedback from each stage of a survey pilot to improve the survey content and protocols.

The timeline is an important part of the process of structuring a survey pilot. The actual duration of the pilot will depend on factors like number of changes made, location of the study area, and availability of equipment for field teams. Based on best practices, the following are the steps involved in conducting a survey pilot (from start to finish), and the recommended time for each step.

Task Estimated Time
Pre-pilot 1-2 weeks
Questionnaire design 4 weeks
Content-focused pilot 2-3 weeks
Review sessions 1-2 weeks
Questionnaire translation 2-3 weeks
IRB approval Depends on the complexity of the survey. Applying for approvals, programming, and the data-focused pilot - should all happen at the same time.
Questionnaire programming 4-6 weeks
Data-focused pilot 2-3 weeks
Enumerator training 2 weeks

Do not confuse the pilot with field testing (practice interviews) which is conducted at the end of enumerator training!


The process of structuring a survey pilot involves agreeing upon the logistics (or practical aspects) of a survey pilot, including duration, approvals, review sessions, and training. In order to conduct a successful pilot, the impact evaluation team (or research team) must discuss each of these aspects in detail to ensure that the survey pilot is conducted smoothly. A good pilot helps to improve the quality of the data collection process and the survey protocols. Go to Structuring a Survey Pilot for a detailed discussion of recommended protocols.


Typically, a survey pilot is conducted before a survey firm is brought on-board. Each of the pilot participants plays an important role in the implementation of a successful pilot. Typical participants include respondents, interviewiers, field coordinator, principal investigator, and other research team members. For a detailed discussion of the role of each participant, and how to select appropriate respondents and interviewers for a pilot, go to the article on Survey Pilot Participants.


Finally, it is important to keep the following best practices in mind while planning and conducting a pilot:

  • Throughout the process of designing the questionnaire, take notes of what needs to be explored or tested during the pilot.
  • Encourage interviewers to probe and follow-up much more than they would in a typical interview
  • Encourage respondents to think out-loud, to understand how they are coming up with their answer, and ask enumerators to record these notes.
  • In some cultures, it will be appropriate and useful to ask respondents their feedback at the end of the interview
  • Take careful notes of the discussions and clarifications that come up during the pilot. These will be an important part of the enumerator manual which is used during enumerator training.
  • It is useful for research team members to sit in on pilot interviews even if they do not speak the local language. Take note of: questions that take longer than expected; any moments at which the respondent seems frustrated, confused, or uncomfortable; any questions that generate significant discussion; and the overall flow of modules and survey instrument.
  • Use the data-focused pilot to test back check templates.
  • Hire a local mobilizer to coordinate with respondents. Mobilizers explain the purpose behind conducting the survey, and facilitate the process of obtaining consent. This is particularly helpful in urban areas, or in cases where respondents are busy. This can improve the outcomes of piloting, for instance, by reducing gap between surveys.

DIME Analytics has also created the following checklists to assist researchers and enumerators in preparing for, and implementing a pilot:

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