BACKGROUND:Previous systematic reviews of weight management programmes (WMPs) have not been able to account for heterogeneity of effectiveness within programmes using top-down behavioural change taxonomies. This could be due to overlapping causal pathways to effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) in these complex interventions. Qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) can help identify these overlapping pathways. METHODS:Using trials of adult WMPs with dietary and physical activity components identified from a previous systematic review, we selected the 10 most and 10 least effective interventions by amount of weight loss at 12 months compared to minimal treatment. Using intervention components suggested by synthesis of studies of programme user views, we labelled interventions as to the presence of these components and, using qualitative comparative analysis, developed pathways of component combinations that created the conditions sufficient for interventions to be most effective and least effective. RESULTS:Informed by the synthesis of views studies, we constructed 3 truth tables relating to quality of the user-provider relationship; perceived high need for guidance from providers; and quality of the relationship between peers in weight management programmes. We found effective interventions were characterized by opportunities to develop supportive relationships with providers or peers, directive provider-led goal setting and components perceived to foster self-regulation. CONCLUSIONS:Although QCA is an inductive method, this innovative approach has enabled the identification of potentially critical aspects of WMPs, such as the nature of relationships within them, which were previously not considered to be as important as more concrete content such as dietary focus.