BACKGROUND:Extensive research effort shows that weight management programmes (WMPs) targeting both diet and exercise are broadly effective. However, the critical features of WMPs remain unclear. OBJECTIVE:To develop a deeper understanding of WMPs critical features, we undertook a systematic review of qualitative evidence. We sought to understand from a service-user perspective how programmes are experienced, and may be effective, on the ground. SEARCH STRATEGY:We identified qualitative studies from existing reviews and updated the searches of one review. INCLUSION CRITERIA:We included UK studies capturing the views of adult WMP users. DATA EXTRACTION AND SYNTHESIS:Thematic analysis was used inductively to code and synthesize the evidence. MAIN RESULTS:Service users were emphatic that supportive relationships, with service providers or WMP peers, are the most critical aspect of WMPs. Supportive relationships were described as providing an extrinsic motivator or "hook" which helped to overcome barriers such as scepticism about dietary advice or a lack confidence to engage in physical activity. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS:The evidence revealed that service-users' understandings of the critical features of WMPs differ from the focus of health promotion guidance or descriptions of evaluated programmes which largely emphasize educational or goal setting aspects of WMPs. Existing programme guidance may not therefore fully address the needs of service users. The study illustrates that the perspectives of service users can reveal unanticipated intervention mechanisms or underemphasized critical features and underscores the value of a holistic understanding about "what happens" in complex psychosocial interventions such as WMPs.