Not swamping players with loot is a crucial first step to getting players to recognise, store and use the special item at a good time... in conjunction with many very constructive viewpoints offered here, including limiting carrying and usage, and economic interplay.
Often, players don't use what they're given because there is just too damn much loot, too much chaff and not enough of real value, dropping constantly. Sacred II is one example of this. Nearly everything was magical; rarely was a new drop worth swapping out for.
In order for something to appear "special" it has to (a) stand out visually from the rest and (b) even if visually distinct, not be a needle in the haystack of "items which I'll put aside for later use". This means pacing special drops.
In most games, items are represented by 2D icons only, and in those like Skyrim where they are full 3D objects, so many objects are so heavily visually embellished that it's hard to tell the "special" from the "mundane". I find the general visual trends of a lot of modern, "loot-heavy" games to be overwhelming, even draining. There is often too much to process. Lower budget games seem to be better in this sense, since they have an art budget that only allows simple art styles. Simple is good.
TL;DR Cases for different games over time
As you look over Action RPGs you see a trend of increasing drops, which has largely contributed to irrelevant drops. One of the worst games for this was Sacred II. Just about everything was magical, yet almost none of it was worth swapping your current items out for. D2 had special graphics for uniques but sadly reused graphics for higher level base items, once again reducing cognition.
If you go back to games like Darkstone and Diablo I, or earlier games like Shadowlands, you begin to see far fewer magical items, and far fewer items per se. This sort of approach enables easier cognition of the really special items, like Windforce or Messerschmidt's Axe. In Moria and Angband, there is a good sliding scale on this, with almost all mundane items early on and almost all powerful items near the end of the game.
Baldur's Gate, an RPG in the traditional 80's/90's CRPG mould, somehow always had me using the special items. I learned to trust BG that way, as I found that specials were absolutely worth using and conferred substantial bonuses. This may be in part due to the well-defined D&D combat systems.