In order to test a hypothesis, one has to design and execute an adequate experiment. Typically, it is neither feasible nor desirable to involve the whole population. Instead, a relatively small subset of the population is studied, and given the outcome for this small sample, relevant conclusions are drawn with respect to the population. An important question to answer is then, What is the minimal sample size needed for the experiment to succeed? In what follows, we answer this question using solely historical data and computer simulation, without invoking any classical statistical procedures.

Although, as we shall see, the ideas are straightforward, direct calculations were impossible to perform before computers. To be able to answer this kind of questions back then, statisticians developed mathematical theories in order to approximate the calculations for specific situations. Since nothing else was possible, these approximations and the various terms and conditions under which they operate made up a large part of traditional textbooks and courses in statistics. However, the advent of today’s computing power has enabled one to estimate required sample sizes in a more direct and intuitive way, with the only prerequisites being an understanding of statistical inference, the availability of historical data describing the status quo, and the ability to write a few lines of code in a programming language.

Problem

For concreteness, consider the following scenario. We run an online business and hypothesize that a specific change in promotion campaigns, such as making them personalized, will have a positive effect on a specific performance metric, such as the average deposit. In order to investigate if it is the case, we decide to perform a two-sample test. There are the following two competing hypotheses.

  • The null hypothesis postulates that the change has no effect on the metric.

  • The alternative hypothesis postulates that the change has a positive effect on the metric.

There will be two groups: a control group and a treatment group. The former will be exposed to the current promotion policy, while the latter to the new one. There are also certain requirements imposed on the test. First, we have a level of statistical significance and a level of practical significance in mind. The former puts a limit on the false-positive rate, and the latter indicates the smallest effect that we still care about; anything smaller is as good as zero for any practical purpose. In addition, we require the test to have a prescribed false-negative rate , ensuring that the test has enough statistical power.

For our purposes, the test is considered well designed if it is capable of detecting a difference as small as so that the false-positive and false-negative rates are controlled to levels and , respectively. Typically, parameters and are held constant, and the desired false-positive rate is attained by varying the number of participants in each group, which we denote by . Note that we do not want any of the parameters to be smaller than the prescribed values, as it would be wasteful.

So what should the sample size be for the test to be well designed?

Solution

Depending on the distribution of the data and on the chosen metric, one might or might not be able to find a suitable test among the standard ones, while ensuring that the test’s assumptions can safely be considered satisfied. More importantly, a textbook solution might not be the most intuitive one, which, in particular, might lead to misuse of the test. It is the understanding that matters.

Here we take a more pragmatic and rather general approach that circumvents the above concerns. It requires only historical data and basic programming skills. Despite its simplicity, the method below goes straight to the core of what the famed statistical tests are doing behind all the math. The approach belongs to the class of so-called bootstrap techniques and is as follows.

Suppose we have historical data on customers’ behavior under the current promotion policy, which is commonplace in practice. An important realization is that this data set represents what we expect to observe in the control group. It is also what is expected of the treatment group provided that the null hypothesis is true, that is, when the proposed change has no effect. This realization enables one to simulate what would happen if each group was limited to an arbitrary number of participants. Then, by varying this size parameter, it is possible to find the smallest value that makes the test well designed, that is, make the test satisfy the requirements on , , and , as discussed in the previous section.

This is all. The rest is an elaboration of the above idea.

The simulation entails the following. To begin with, note that what we are interested in testing is the difference between the performance metric applied to the treatment group and the same metric applied to the control group, which is referred to as the test statistic:

Test statistic = Metric(Treatment sample) - Metric(Control sample).

Treatment sample and Control sample stand for sets of observations, and Metric(Sample) stands for computing the performance metric given such a sample. For instance, each observation could be the total deposit of a customer, and the metric could be the average value:

Metric(Sample) = Sum of observations / Number of observations.

Note, however, that it is an example; the metric can be arbitrary, and this is a huge advantage of this approach to sample size determination based on data and simulation.

Large positive values of the test statistic speak in favor of the treatment (that is, the new promotion policy in our example), while those that are close to zero suggest that the treatment is futile.

A sample of observations corresponding to the status quo (that is, the current policy in our example) can be easily obtained by drawing data points with replacement from the historical data:

Sample = Choose random with replacement(Data, N).

This expression is used for Control sample under both the null and alternative hypotheses. As alluded to earlier, this is also how Treatment sample is obtained under the null. Regarding the alternative hypothesis being true, one has to express the hypothesized outcome as a distribution for the case of the minimal detectable difference, . The simplest and reasonable solution is to sample the data again, apply the metric, and then adjust the result to reflect the alternative hypothesis:

Metric(Choose random with replacement(Data, N)) + Delta.

Here, again, one is free to change the logic under the alternative according to the situation at hand. For instance, instead of an additive effect, one could simulate a multiplicative one.

The above is a way to simulate a single instance of the experiment under either the null or alternative hypothesis; the result is a single value for the test statistic. The next step is to estimate how the test statistic would vary if the experiment was repeated many times in the two scenarios. This simply means that the procedure should be repeated multiple times:

Repeat many times {
  Sample 1 = Choose random with replacement(Data, N)
  Sample 2 = Choose random with replacement(Data, N)
  Metric 1 = Metric(Sample 1)
  Metric 2 = Metric(Sample 2)
  Test statistic under null = Metric 1 - Metric 2

  Sample 3 = Choose random with replacement(Data, N)
  Sample 4 = Choose random with replacement(Data, N)
  Metric 3 = Metric(Sample 3) + Delta
  Metric 4 = Metric(Sample 4)
  Test statistic under alternative = Metric 3 - Metric 4
}

This yields a collection of values for the test statistic under the null hypothesis and a collection of values for the test statistic under the alternative hypothesis. Each one contains realizations from the so-called sampling distribution in the corresponding scenario. The following figure gives an illustration:

The blue shape is the sampling distribution under the null hypothesis, and the red one is the sampling distribution under the alternative hypothesis. We shall come back to this figure shortly.

These two distributions of the test statistic are what we are after, as they allow one to compute the false-positive rate and eventually choose a sample size. First, given , the sampling distribution under the null (the blue one) is used in order to find a value beyond which the probability mass is equal to :

Critical value = Quantile([Test statistic under null], 1 - alpha).

Quantile computes the quantile specified by the second argument given a set of observations. This quantity is called the critical value of the test. In the figure above, it is denoted by a dashed line. When the test statistic falls to the right of the critical value, we reject the null hypothesis; otherwise, we fail to reject it. Second, the sampling distribution in the case of the alternative hypothesis being true (the red one) is used in order to compute the false-negative rate:

Attained beta = Mean([Test statistic under alternative < Critical value]).

It corresponds to the probability mass of the sampling distribution under the alternative to the left of the critical value. In the figure, it is the red area to the left of the dashed line.

The final step is to put the above procedure in an optimization loop that minimizes the distance between the target and attained ’s with respect to the sample size:

Optimize N until Attained beta is close to Target beta {
  Repeat many times {
    Test statistic under null = ...
    Test statistic under alternative = ...
  }
  Critical value = ...
  Attained beta = ...
}

This concludes the calculation of the size that the control and treatment groups should have in order for the upcoming test in promotion campaigns to be well designed in terms of the level of statistical significance , the false-negative rate , and the level of practical significance .

An example of how this technique could be implemented in practice can be found in the appendix.

Conclusion

In this article, we have discussed an approach to sample size determination that is based on historical data and computer simulation rather than on mathematical formulae tailored for specific situations. It is general and straightforward to implement. More importantly, the technique is intuitive, since it directly follows the narrative of null hypothesis significance testing. It does require prior knowledge of the key concepts in statistical inference. However, this knowledge is arguably essential for those who are involved in scientific experimentation. It constitutes the core of statistical literacy.

Acknowledgments

This article was inspired by a blog post authored by Allen Downey and a talk given by John Rauser. I also would like to thank Aaron Rendahl for his feedback on the introduction to the method presented here and for his help with the implementation given in the appendix.

References

Appendix

The following listing shows an implementation of the bootstrap approach in R:

library(tidyverse)

set.seed(42)

# Artificial data for illustration
observation_count <- 20000
data <- tibble(value = rlnorm(observation_count))

# Performance metric
metric <- mean
# Statistical significance
alpha <- 0.05
# False-negative rate
beta <- 0.2
# Practical significance
delta <- 0.1 * metric(data$value)

simulate <- function(sample_size, replication_count) {
  # Function for drawing a single sample of size sample_size
  run_one <- function() sample(data$value, sample_size, replace = TRUE)
  # Function for drawing replication_count samples of size sample_size
  run_many <- function() replicate(replication_count, { metric(run_one()) })

  # Simulation under the null hypothesis
  control_null <- run_many()
  treatment_null <- run_many()
  difference_null <- treatment_null - control_null

  # Simulation under the alternative hypothesis
  control_alternative <- run_many()
  treatment_alternative <- run_many() + delta
  difference_alternative <- treatment_alternative - control_alternative

  # Computation of the critical value
  critical_value <- quantile(difference_null, 1 - alpha)
  # Computation of the false-negative rate
  beta <- mean(difference_alternative < critical_value)

  list(difference_null = difference_null,
       difference_alternative = difference_alternative,
       critical_value = critical_value,
       beta = beta)
}

# Number of replications
replication_count <- 1000
# Interval of possible values for the sample size
search_interval <- c(1, 10000)
# Root finding to attain the desired value by varying the sample size
target <- function(n) beta - simulate(as.integer(n), replication_count)$beta
sample_size <- as.integer(uniroot(target, interval = search_interval)$root)

The illustrative figure shown in the solution section displays the sampling distribution of the test statistic under the null and alternative for the sample size found by this code snippet.