How to Determine Sample Size for Quantitative Research
This blog post looks at how large a sample size should be for reliable, usable market research findings.
Table of Contents:
- What is sample size?
- Why do you need to determine sample size?
- Variables that impact sample size
- Determining sample size
What is sample size?
The sample size of a quantitative study is the number of people who complete questionnaires in a research project. It is a representative sample of the target audience in which you are interested.
Why do you need to determine sample size?
You need to determine how big of a sample size you need so that you can be sure the quantitative data you get from a survey is reflective of your target population as a whole - and so that the decisions you make based on the research have a firm foundation. Too big a sample and a project can be needlessly expensive and time-consuming. Too small a sample size, and you risk interviewing the wrong respondents - meaning ultimately you miss out on valuable insights.
Variables that impact sample size
There are a few variables to be aware of before working out the right sample size for your project.
The subject matter of your research will determine who your respondents are - chocolate eaters, dentists, homeowners, drivers, people who work in IT, etc. For your respective group of interest, the total of this target group (i.e. the number of chocolate eaters/homeowners/drivers that exist in the general population) will guide how many respondents you need to interview for reliable results in that field.
Ideally, you would use a random sample of people who fit within the group of people you’re interested in. Some of these people are easy to get hold of, while others aren‘t as easy. Some represent smaller groups of people in the population, so a small sample is inevitable. For example, if you’re interviewing chocolate eaters aged 5-99 you’ll have a larger sample size - and a much easier time sampling the population - than if you’re interviewing healthcare professionals who specialize in a niche branch of medicine.
Confidence interval (margin of error)
Confidence intervals, otherwise known as the margin of error, indicate the reliability of statistics that have been calculated by research; in other words, how certain you can be that the statistics are close to what they would be if it were possible to interview the entire population of the people you’re researching.
Confidence intervals are helpful since it would be impossible to interview all chocolate eaters in the US. However, statistics and research enable you to take a sample of that group and achieve results that reflect their opinions as a total population. Before starting a research project, you can decide how large a margin of error you will allow between the mean number of your sample and the mean number of its total population. The confidence interval is expressed as +/- a number, indicating the margin of error on either side of your statistic. For example, if 35% of chocolate eaters say that they eat chocolate for breakfast and your margin of error is 5, you’ll know that if you had asked the entire population, 30-40% of people would admit to eating chocolate at that time of day.
The confidence level indicates how probable it is that if you were to repeat your study multiple times with a random sample, you would get the same statistics and they would fall within the confidence interval every time.
In the example above, if you were to repeat the chocolate study over and over, you would have a certain level of confidence that those eating chocolate for breakfast would always fall within the 30-40% parameters. Most research studies have confidence intervals of 90% confident, 95% confident, or 99% confident. The number you choose will depend on whether you are happy to accept a broadly accurate set of data or whether the nature of your study demands one that is almost completely reliable.
Standard deviation represents how much the results will vary from the mean number and from each other. A high standard deviation means that there is a wide range of responses to your research questions, while a low standard deviation indicates that responses are more similar to each other, clustered around the mean number. A standard deviation of 0.5 is a safe level to pick to ensure that the sample size is large enough.
If you already know anything about your target audience, you should have a feel for the degree to which their opinions vary. If you’re interviewing the entire population of a city, without any other criteria, their views are going to be wildly diverse so you’ll want to sample a high number of residents. If you’re honing in on a sample of chocolate breakfast eaters - there’s probably a limited number of reasons why that’s their meal of choice, so you can feel confident with a much smaller sample.
The scope and objectives of the research will have an influence on how big the sample is. If the project aims to evaluate four different pieces of stimulus (an advert, a concept, a website, etc.) and each respondent is giving feedback on a single piece, then a higher number of respondents will need to be interviewed than if each respondent were evaluating all four; the same would be true when looking for reads on four different sub-audiences vs. not needing any sub-group data cuts.
Determining sample size
Sample size, as we’ve seen, is an important factor to consider in market research projects. Getting the sample size right will result in research findings you can use confidently when translating them into action. So now that you’ve thought about the subject of your research, the population that you’d like to interview, and how confident you want to be with the findings, how do you calculate the appropriate sample size?
There are many factors that can go into determining the sample size for a study, including z-scores, standard deviations, confidence levels, and margins of error. The great thing about quantilope is that your research consultants and data scientists are the experts in helping you land on the right target so you can focus on the actual study and the findings.
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